Mahoning County elections board taking steps to rebuild reputation

What happened on the Nov. 7, 2017, election night in Mahoning County should never happen again.

Actually it shouldn’t have occurred during the last election.

It was human error that led to the double count of 6,179 early-vote ballots.

That’s OK as everyone makes mistakes.

But what made this particular issue inexcusable was after it was detected, the county board of elections chose not to tell the media and the public about it.

Instead of placing a couple of phone calls, the board decided to only change the results on its website after the “final unofficial” ballot was posted and incorrect copies were given to the media and the public gathered at the elections office.

I discovered the problem the morning after the election when I stopped in at the board office to get voter breakdown figures for an article on the close Youngstown mayoral election.

When I received the data, I noticed that while the race was close, it wasn’t as close as the figures provided by the board the night before.

I was told about a double count, but it took a while to get a clear explanation as to what happened.

Deputy Director Thomas McCabe said he failed to reset a scanner that had counted early- vote paper ballots before he inserted 18 ballots that were cast curbside at polling locations.

That resulted in 6,179 early-vote ballots being counted twice on the “final unofficial” report the board ran and distributed to the media and public on election night.

The mistake was discovered about 10 to 15 minutes later and an “amended final” report was put online without notifying anyone.

Again, mistakes happen and in hindsight, election officials admit it was handled poorly.

The board has made errors over the years, which have led some to have doubts about the integrity of the voting system in Mahoning County. Shaking the confidence of the electorate is about the worst thing that can happen in an election.

But this error could have so easily been avoided.

It’s not as though election officials don’t have the phone numbers to newsrooms in the Mahoning Valley.

Since then, there have been plenty of apologies from a number of people at the board of elections – and that’s appreciated.

While this was being reported – and this newspaper wrote plenty of editorials criticizing the board – Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted stepped in after his office read about the problem in The Vindicator.

On Nov. 15, Husted initially ordered the board to “conduct a formal internal review” of what went wrong.

He wrote the report “must document how the tabulation error occurred and what steps the board plans to ensure that a similar error is not repeated and that the media and the public are notified of any amended unofficial election results.” The report was due Nov. 28.

The board complied, and then Husted sent another letter Dec. 22 asking for its members to adopt a formal policy. The report identified “a breakdown in communication on several fronts,” adding that staff never communicated the double count to board members, media or the public.

He asked the board to designate a staff person responsible to update each method of communication the board uses as well as a number of ways to streamline the number of methods it manages for reporting decisions.

For those who’ve never been at the board of elections on election night, there are far too many people wandering around in and near the vote tabulation area.

There’s also a lot of members of the media, and candidate and ballot-issue observers crowded into a hallway outside the tabulation area waiting – sometimes for far too long – for election results on paper distributed so we can all see who’s winning and how many votes are in.

But in trying to organize the chaos, the board’s proposed policy changes adopted Wednesday may have gone too far in the opposite direction.

There will only be one Democrat and one Republican in the tabulation room for vote counting. Also, only two board members at a time will be allowed in the vote tabulation room.

Restricting access to just a couple of people will lead doubters to question what’s going on and bring more scrutiny to the board.

On a related topic, the board will go on trial about its practices next Friday in common pleas court.

Sean McKinney, who lost the Youngstown mayoral election by 201 votes to Jamael Tito Brown, claims there was widespread “election fraud with many irregularities” and is demanding a new election.

Though that’s going to be a tough hill to climb – particularly because the board through the county prosecutor’s office has explained almost all of Mc- Kinney’s claims – it again puts the board in an unfavorable light. But it also gives the board another chance to prove its detractors wrong.

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