Mahoning County election grabs attention of the state

Is Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted letting the fox guard the henhouse when he asks the Mahoning County Board of Elections to conduct a formal internal review of the vote tabulation debacle Nov. 7?

Time will tell. We are reassured, however, that any attempt at a cover-up will be exposed by the state. That’s because Husted has instructed election board officials to submit to him a draft report of their investigation by Nov. 28.

“Upon receipt of your report, my staff may meet with personnel of your office in the event there are additional questions or concerns,” the secretary of state wrote to the board of elections.

The board members are Republicans Mark Munroe, the chairman, and Tracey Winbush; and, Atty. David Betras and Robert Wasko, Democrats.

Munroe is chairman of the county GOP, while Betras is chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Husted’s letter instructing the board to conduct a formal review of the vote-tabulation error came three days after The Vindicator called on Secretary of State Husted to dispatch a team of election experts to find out why the Nov. 7 general election was such a “disaster.”

“The use of the word ‘disaster’ is intentional because The Vindicator, as the newspaper of record in this region, was directly affected by the county board of elections’ inaccurate vote tallies made public late Tuesday,” we wrote in last Sunday’s editorial.

We, therefore, applaud the secretary of state for giving this issue the attention it deserves.

The inaccuracy of the original vote count made public election night stemmed from the fact that more than 6,000 early-vote ballots were counted twice, thereby skewing the final but unofficial results. The updated results were released Nov. 8.

As the secretary of state said in his letter dated Nov. 15, “Though the error did not change the outcome of any contest in this election, it is not unusual for a local contest to result in a tie or be decided by one vote, which underscores the importance of ensuring the proper tabulation of votes and reporting of accurate vote totals.”

We called for a state review because of the seeming cavalier attitude adopted by the elections staff when the tabulation error by Deputy Director Thomas McCabe was detected.

Rather than submit the new vote totals to this newspaper and other media on election night, the staff waited until the next day.

As a result, The Vindicator published the wrong totals in its Nov. 8 edition. Nearly a full page was dedicated to the ballots that featured the complete but unofficial count.

The newspaper was forced to publish an amended version Nov. 9.

But while the secretary of state is focusing on the general election debacle, we believe there could be systemic problems with the operation of the elections office that warrant closer scrutiny.

As we pointed out two years ago, the board failed to count 147 write-in votes in the Struthers mayoral contest. The overlooked ballots were from two of the 12 precincts.

Change in outcome

The mistake resulted in a change in the outcome of the race for mayor.

In 2009, the board of elections failed to send to the county commissioners the ballot language for the half-percent sales tax renewal that was prepared by the secretary of state’s office.

Although a deputy clerk was blamed for the foul-up, we argued that the director and deputy director were also to blame. Republican McCabe was the director at the time and Democrat Joyce Kale-Pesta was the deputy. Their roles are reversed today.

While we fully support Husted for his interest in what’s going on in Mahoning County, we are concerned with his use of the word “may” regarding a meeting between his staff and local officials.

There is enough justification for a formal sit-down at which the local operation is put under the microscope.

Last week, we called on the secretary of state to determine if there should be any punishment rendered for those who dropped the ball. We repeat that call today.

After all, public trust in the conduct of elections is of paramount importance.

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