A pending decision about whether to appeal a federal judge’s decision in a disputed election could place Hamilton County taxpayers on the hook for legal fees in the case.
The case involves which provisional ballots to count in the Juvenile Court judicial race between Democrat Tracie Hunter and Republican John Williams from the November 2010 election.
Hunter lost by just 23 votes out of nearly 230,000 ballots cast. Some ballots weren’t counted, however, because although they were cast at the correct polling station, they were cast at the wrong precinct table, apparently due to poll worker error. Hunter then filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the board’s decision.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott ruled Feb. 8 that 286 provisional ballots should be counted in the race.
On Monday the Hamilton County Board of Elections split 2-2, along partisan lines, about whether to appeal Dlott’s ruling. Because there was a tie vote, the matter goes to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who likely will side with his GOP colleagues on the board and order an appeal.
Like the Republicans on the county elections board, Husted has said state law, not a federal judge, should be the final authority on which ballots are counted.
“I am concerned about the continuing involvement of the federal court in prescribing which ballots should and should not be counted in a county judicial race in Ohio,” Husted said in January 2011.
But the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals already has upheld a ruling by Dlott in the case once before. The appellate court ruled in January 2011 that the board should determine how many ballots were cast due to poll worker error.
The three-judge panel said not counting ballots that were miscast through no fault of the voter would be "fundamentally unfair." Still, it looks like the board will try its luck with the 6th Circuit once again.
It’s routine in cases like this for the victor — plaintiff Tracie Hunter, in this instance — to ask the court to order the defendant to pay legal costs. Although the exact amount of legal fees incurred to date wasn’t immediately available, it’s believed to be in the range of $800,000 to $1.5 million.
If an appeal is pursued, the county could be at risk of paying much more. A lengthy appeal process could easily double what’s been spent so far, legal experts said.
The expense comes at a time when Hamilton County commissioners are cutting back sheriff's patrols and other county services to avoid a deficit.
Husted’s office hasn’t yet received formal notice of the board’s tie vote, a staffer said today. When it does, a legal review will be initiated.
“We will make a decision shortly thereafter,” said spokesman Matt McClellan. “We hope to make one soon.”
Interestingly, Dlott also commented in her ruling on the apparent unconstitutionality of Ohio law.
“Ohio’s precinct-based voting system that delegates to poll workers the duty to ensure that voters are directed to the correct precinct but which provides that provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct shall not be counted under any circumstance, even where the ballot is miscast due to poll-worker error, is fundamentally unfair and abrogates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law,” the judge wrote.
Dlott said she was unable to order a remedy, however, because the original complaint wasn’t based on a due process claim and the plaintiff had failed to notify the Ohio Attorney General, as she were required to do if she intended to challenge the constitutionality of Ohio law.
Since then, though, the notice has been given. Conceivably, Dlott could rule on that issue in the not-too-distant future and order a remedy, namely declaring Ohio’s election laws unconstitutional and unenforceable.