A request by two Delaware County Republican County Council candidates to keep problematic mail-in ballots separated from the voting poll was rejected as moot by a judge Monday evening. But her nuanced ruling gave some relief to the plaintiffs, in that she agreed to hold a hearing on the issues and kept jurisdiction should additional problems arise.
The dispute centers on ballots that were mailed out to the wrong people or had another voter’s information on the return envelope. Officials also discovered that a vendor mailed some 5,500 ballots after the expected date of Oct. 19, making it unlikely that all of those ballots would be received by the Board of Elections by the Nov. 2 general election.
Council candidates Joe Lombardo and Frank Agovino asked the court to intervene and keep the ballots from being treated like other vote-by-mail ballots. In her ruling, Common Pleas Court Judge Kelly Eckel held that James Allen, director of the Board of Elections, had already taken steps to segregate those ballots so judicial supervision was not needed.
However, she ruled in favor of the petitioners, finding that having two watchers present, one from each party, would ensure that a fair ballot-handling process will be used. Therefore, court-ordered supervision is not needed.
Of the 708 ballots mailed by third-party vendor ElectionIQ of Akron, Ohio, 660 were found to have errors. Allen took steps to make sure they would be handled separately, the judge wrote. In response to the issues, the county Board of Elections ordered 19,000 provisional ballots in case voters need to cast those at polling locations.
ElectionIQ officials did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Also, ballots that arrive by Nov. 5 will be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 2, Eckel ruled. Eckel also kept jurisdiction over any disputes that may erupt during the election.
Both sides were pleased by her ruling.
Michael Puppio, who represents Lombardo and Agovino, said he was “very pleased with the outcome. The judge kept jurisdiction and agreed that the problems existed. I am baffled as to why the county would not stand beside (us) and why they were not more forthcoming. Transparency is the best disinfectant.
The motion was granted in part and denied in part: granted in that a hearing was held; granted in that judge acknowledged the errors of the third-party vendor; granted in that jurisdiction was maintained; granted to the extent that the election board said in court the measures they were taking to sequester ballots and it is now memorialized in the court order; granted in that two additional watchers are permitted to canvas the problematic mail-in ballots.
“(And she) denied in that a judicial overseer was not appointed; denied as to the argument that all 5,500 of the late ballots should be quarantined; denied as to the argument of disparate treatment of voters,” Puppio said.
“One very interesting item that was not really discussed but the judge included it in her finding was an extension of time for three days for ballots to arrive.”
Delaware County Solicitor Bill Martin issued this statement: “As anticipated by the county, Judge Eckel confirmed that the petition filed by the Republican candidates was moot, as the matters complained of had been appropriately remedied by the County Board of Elections. The judge confirmed the role of “watchers” to monitor the count of ballots the County had already agreed to sequester. Finally, the judge extended to 8:00 p.m. on November 5, 2021, the period where the county can tabulate ballots, only as the deadline relates to the small number of ballots that had been re-mailed, or mailed late, as long as the ballots are postmarked on or before Election Day. As to the petitioners’ proposal to take the election out of control of the Board of Elections, and rest such control in the courts, the judge recognized such request as unneeded, since the county was already following the law.
“It was unfortunate that Delaware County Republicans expended significant county resources, and distracted staff from preparing for the election, with this unneeded ‘emergency’ weekend legal process. It is of a recent pattern where the party seeks to drive elections into the courts, instead of seeking to fairly compete at the ballot box,” Martin said.
A spokeswoman for Delaware County emphasized that all votes will be counted.
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