Friday, October 1, 2004

Error will force Hamilton County to reissue 17,500 absentee ballots

By Cindi Andrews
Enquirer staff writer

Ballots sent to 17,500 absentee voters in Hamilton County this week will be reissued because about 3,400 of them could foil a voter's intention.

An error in how the ballot was structured would have given votes intended for William Brayshaw, the county engineer who is running unopposed for re-election, to Nancy Fuerst, a Democratic candidate for Ohio Supreme Court.

"It's just an unfortunate mistake, but it seems like they're doing what they can to fix the problem," said Amy Jenkins, campaign manager for Fuerst's opponent, Republican Judith Lanzinger.

The mistake comes in an election year in which the mechanics of voting, especially in battlegrond states like Ohio, face unprecedented scrutiny. Despite the 2000 hanging-chad debacle in Florida, most voters in Southwest Ohio will again be making their choices on punch-card ballots.

Interest in the election is also resulting in record voter-registration numbers and absentee-ballot requests. That translates into six- and seven-day work weeks for elections staff members.

"Should it be an excuse for something like this happening? Of course not," elections board chairman Tim Burke said. "But might it have contributed? It sure might have."

The problem in this case: On some ballot pages, people voting for Brayshaw are directed to punch dot No. 83 on the accompanying punch-card ballot. However, Brayshaw's correct punch position is No. 69; No. 83 is assigned to Fuerst.

Only some ballot pages are wrong, because the Board of Elections has 10 different versions of the page that includes Brayshaw. Within each race, elections boards must rotate the order of candidates' names so that each gets a turn on top. The candidates' punch-card numbers, however, remain the same, and that's what the vote-counting machines read.

Since Brayshaw has no opponent, his name doesn't move, but other races on the same page are contested, elections director John Williams said. Somehow, Brayshaw's number was wrong on two of the 10 versions of the page, he said.

The pages were among more than 750 different ballot pages proofed by Hamilton County election workers for the Nov. 2 election.

A call from an absentee voter alerted the election board to the error Wednesday - a day after the board started sending ballots - Williams said. Only 3,400 of the bad ballots were sent out, but there's no way to know which of the 17,500 voters who were mailed ballots Tuesday got them, because the different versions are randomly mixed.

After consulting with the campaigns for Lanzinger and Fuerst on Thursday, the board voted 4-0 to send the 17,500 voters a second absentee ballot. The corrected ballots will be sent out by Monday, Williams said.

"We think it's the cleanest and most fair way to go," he said.

A voter can disregard the new ballot. Or the voter can vote the second ballot, which will entirely replace the first ballot for all races. If an absentee voter has not yet voted, he or she can simply wait to receive the new ballot.

The board can ensure that no one has both of their ballots counted because all ballot envelopes are numbered and dated, Williams said.

Since the board is already resending the ballots, Ralph Nader's name will be removed by covering it with a label. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell ruled late Wednesday that Nader did not qualify as an independent presidential candidate in Ohio.

For information on absentee voting in Hamilton County, call the Board of Elections at (513) 632-7000.


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