Wednesday, November 03, 1999

Error in ballot just reinforces solemnity of voting




BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A funny thing happened to me at the polls Tuesday. I cast my ballot and received a gut-level reminder of how precious one vote can be.

        I may have lost my vote to a printing error. Two candidates' party affiliations were reversed on my ballot.

        Not thinking clearly, I called this error to the attention of my precinct judges — after I dropped my ballot in the box. Then came the sinking feeling that I accidently voted for the wrong candidate. I know that for some people Election Day is like wallpaper. It's just there. They can vote or not vote and it makes no difference.

        An overwhelming number of eligible voters just leave voting to others. Instead of turning out to vote on a blustery Tuesday in November, they turn over in bed to catch a few more Zzzzzs.

        Not me. I agonize over every candidate. No campaign material goes unread in my house. On Election Day, my votes are cast verrrry carefully.

        That's why my heart sank when I thought I may have voted for the wrong person. If that candidate won by one vote — MY vote — I would have to live with that for the next two years. He would be the councilman I call when the stoplight at the end of the street burns out, when a pothole widens, when a sewer backs up. He would be my contact with local government, my local government, since I pay taxes and vote.

Election typos
        It was a simple typographical error. The “Republican” and “Democrat” designations were swapped for two Cheviot City Council candidates. Turns out it was that way throughout my entire precinct.

        At first I didn't notice. I punched out the hole by my candidate's name. Then I caught the error. As I exited the booth, I started wondering, in a slow, early morning kind of way, did my vote go into the total of the candidate or the party?

        As I dropped ballot No. 26 into the box, I pointed out the mistake to the precinct judges. The kindly women in their color-coordinated outfits of red, white and blue sat bolt upright in their folding chairs.

        The women looked stunned — as if Jesse Ventura had just barged in, sans briefs, and tried to cast a write-in vote for himself.

        My news sent the precinct judges scurrying about the polling place. They checked the ballot pages at the precinct's four polling booths. Every ballot in every booth was in error.

        Voting stopped until the ballots were fixed. The man holding ballot No. 27 was OK.

        Mr. Ballot No. 26 — me — was out of luck.

        The precinct judge guarding the ballot box told me I could not take back my vote. No changing. No peeking. No voting again. This is Cheviot, not Chicago. Once a ballot is in the box, there's no getting it back.

        Over and over, I replayed the scene in my mind of the ballot floating from my hand. The piece of paper sails into the slot of the cardboard box, its lid secured by two orange strips of plastic. I'd lost my vote to uncertainty and it would gnaw at me.

Getting it right
        The precinct judges phoned Bruce Taylor, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. They put me on the line and told me to let him know what I found.

        He was amazed, not amused. And very apologetic.

        “Even with 500 candidates and issues on the ballot, we strive for perfection,” he told me. Ballots are checked and re-checked “five or six times. And still this one got through. I'm sorry.”

        Errors like this, Bruce assured me, are rare. In the 23 years he and deputy director Pam Swafford have been on the job, “we have never heard of anything like this.”

        After a thorough inspection of ballots throughout Cheviot, no other errors were found.

        Bruce Taylor hopes one of the two council candidates in my precinct wins by a landslide. “Otherwise, we will have to look into this election.”

        Who knows, I might get a chance to vote again.

        That could be the blessing in all this, a second chance to fulfill the most basic duty of anyone who shares the precious fruits of a democracy.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.