A hearing date of July 18 has been set in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge race. At the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott will determine if provisional ballots that were originally thrown out should be counted.
In last fall’s election, around 270 voters in Hamilton County went to the right polling location but mistakenly voted at the wrong precinct — some of which are represented by tables at the same polling location — resulting in their votes being deemed invalid.
When the results came in, it was determined that Republican John Williams had only beat Democrat Tracie Hunter by 23 votes out of the almost 230,000 votes cast. If the 270 votes had been counted, the outcome of the race likely would’ve been different.
Soon Hunter’s campaign learned about the ballots that were thrown out and sued the Hamilton County Board of Elections in federal court, arguing that they should investigate if errors by poll workers led to the mixup.
“There is no evidence that poll workers purposely told people to go to the wrong place,” says Alex Triantafilou, Hamilton County Republican Party chairman. “The only evidence is that voters went to the wrong place and poll workers didn’t catch it.”
Republicans argue that dragging the case to federal court is taking advantage of the voting system and election laws for partisan gain.
“State law says if you vote in the wrong precinct, your vote is thrown out and not counted,” Triantafilou says. “However, if there is a clear poll worker error you can challenge that vote from being thrown out and get it counted.
She only filed a lawsuit because she lost. Her perspective is that those 270 votes may benefit her based on where they came from, so she wants them counted.”
Hunter, though, argues that poll workers did make serious errors when voters went to the polls and their negligence led to votes being miscast.
“Poll workers didn’t know how to look up addresses correctly and directed voters to the wrong precincts to vote,” says Jennifer Branch, Hunter’s attorney. “Poll workers have an obligation to make sure people are voting in the right precinct and should not be directing them to the wrong place to vote.”
Also, Branch noted that the Hamilton County Board of Elections did count several votes that were miscast at their office, but refused to count the votes that were miscast at the precincts, which is an inconsistent policy.
“The board staff gave voters the wrong ballots at their office and they counted those votes and acknowledged that they made an error,” Branch says. “What the board did here was help some people, where the poll worker made an error, but not others. They need to protect everyone’s right to vote and not just certain people.”
If the votes are counted, many people believe the ramifications could stretch as far as the 2012 presidential election. Critics say it could set a precedent and change the voting laws of Ohio, affecting how ballots are counted in the presidential contest.
“If you change the laws in Ohio and let anyone vote at any precinct, it will create chaos in the election process,” Triantafilou says. “People will pick the shortest line and vote wherever they want.”
Some say there is nothing wrong with that and that people who come to the right polling location, but go to the wrong precinct, should be allowed to vote.
“I think the current Ohio law is unconstitutional and deprives voters of equal protection under the law,” says Tim Burke, Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman. “It takes away ballots of valid qualified voters who have the right to have their votes counted.”
Burke adds that poll workers willingly acknowledged that they made errors when they were directing voters to their precincts, and that should be reason enough to count the discarded votes.
“If a poll worker didn’t do their job and as a result a vote was cast in the wrong place, the vote should count,” he says. “These poor voters were not treated fairly and they have a right to have their voices heard.”
In the end, the decision rests with Dlott. Although both parties agree they would like to see the dispute resolved, they contend it’s likely an appeal will be filed once her ruling is granted.
For now, a visiting judge is filling in the judicial seat until it is determined if the thrown out provisional ballots will be counted.