A federal appeals court ruling Monday cleared the way to count some 300 disputed ballots in the razor-close election for Hamilton County juvenile court judge, which took place 17 months ago.
The decision does not end the long court battle over the ballots, but it requires county election officials to count the ballots, declare a victor and seat the winning judgewhile the legal fight continues for months, or even years, in the federal courts.
The dispute involves provisional ballots cast in the 2010 juvenile court election between Democrat Tracie Hunter and Republican John Williams. Williams leads by 23 votes, but Hunter could surge ahead when the disputed ballots are counted because they were cast in predominantly Democratic precincts.
Voters cast the provisional ballots at the correct polling places but at the wrong precinct table, an error known as “right church, wrong pew.” Hunter and the Democrats have argued it is unfair to exclude the ballots because evidence suggests poll-workers mistakenly directed voters to the wrong tables. Williams and the Republicans say the ballots were miscast and Ohio law does not allow them to be counted.
U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ordered the Board of Elections to count about 300 of the provisional ballots. The reason, she said, was the board’s decision to count disputed ballots cast at the board’s downtown office while excluding disputed ballots cast at other locations. Dlott said that decision violated federal election law because it treated one set of ballots differently than another.
In its decision Monday, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati backed Dlott and ordered the county to count the ballots. The three-judge panel rejected the Republicans’ request to halt the counting while it continues to challenge Dlott’s ruling, concluding that their argument “has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits.”
A winner was finally declared today in a long, drawn-out battle over a Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge seat. The Hamilton County Board of Elections counted disputed provisional ballots in the race between Republican John Williams and Democrat Tracie Hunter-and declared Hunter the win, by 71 votes.
Just last week, Board of Elections members announced they would comply with a federal judge’s order to count the ballots. 23 votes originally separated the two from victory, before the provisional ballots were counted. The disputed votes weren’t counted because they were cast in the wrong precincts.
There may be an automatic recount, because the margin of victory is less than one half of one percent. But Williams has already been appointed to another judgeship and could decline the recount.
It’s a good result, the person who got the most votes won, but it isn’t over. As I wrote in the last post, the real issue for me is that Voter ID laws passed federal court muster (partly) based on the fallback of provisional balloting. Provisional balloting is more complicated than standard balloting, and, based on the testimony that the federal judge reviewed, provisional balloting introduces a subjective element and a opportunity for error that really shouldn’t be there.
Voter ID laws are a “fix” to a problem that doesn’t exist, voter impersonation fraud. Voter ID laws increase reliance on provisional ballots. There are problems with provisional ballots. If we increase reliance on provisional ballots, those problems will multiply. We should stop denying that, and instead take another look at whether we should be relying on provisional balloting to protect access to the franchise to the extent that we are when we’re allowing these ID laws to go in. I would have preferred if we had looked at the reliability of provisional balloting PRIOR to letting voter ID laws go forward in state after state after state, but since we didn’t, now might be a good time to do that. This case illustrates the problems with provisional balloting process perfectly, because they took testimony from poll workers and voters. We (finally) heard from people on the ground, people who were there. It’d be a shame if we ignored them.