RED FLAGS: Many Warnings Before Election Night Problems in Porter County, IN

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The election office in Porter County, IN had numerous indications that the 2018 election was going to be challenging – but for some reason no one addressed them sufficiently before Election Day (and Night, and everything afterwards) became a difficult mess. The Chicago Tribune has more:

Sundae Schoon, the Republican director in Porter County’s voter registration office, started worrying about how the county’s midterm general election was being handled in late September.

“There was such an influx of (requests for) absentee ballots coming in,” she said, adding there were only two people in Clerk Karen Martin’s office to handle them.

By the Saturday before the Nov. 6 election, her concerns grew deeper, because the suitcases for precinct inspectors weren’t ready to be picked up. Many inspectors pick up the supplies that day if they can’t get them the day before the election.

She began to wonder.

“If that’s not ready, what else isn’t?” she said, adding she called David Bengs, president of the election board, about the suitcases and he directed her to do whatever needed to be done to get them ready.

That was just one of many problems county and party officials said preceded an Election Day that became a whirlwind of chaos, as poll workers couldn’t get into polls, two court hearings were held to keep late-opening polls open, and poll workers waited long hours for absentee ballots that had never been sorted to arrive.

The ensuring few days brought an effort to count the 18,562 absentee ballots; a protest in front of the county administration building with demands for votes to be counted; calls for an assortment of investigations into how the election was handled, including to the FBI; and a three-day wait for preliminary election results that was capped with calls for Martin… to resign for her mishandling of the election. She refused.

Officials attribute the breakdown in the county’s electoral process to a number of factors, including reassurances from Martin that her office could handle the election, a lack of communication with the election board, and an election that was wanting in one of its most basic of needs – workers to answer calls, handle absentee ballots, and usher voters through the polls.

Martin declined to answer a series of questions about the handling of the election posed to her by the Post-Tribune via email. She is finishing her second term as clerk and, under state statute, could not seek another term. Martin made an unsuccessful run for auditor.

One key factor appears to have been a switch to the county clerk’s office as the lead in running elections and a misreading of primary turnout that left precincts short-staffed on Election Day:

The voter registration office handled elections until March when, with a 2-1 vote along party lines, the election board voted to move elections to the clerk’s office. The switch came after Kathy Kozuszek, Democratic director in voter registration, said that office handling the elections, which it had done for decades, ran afoul of state law and she wouldn’t do it any more.

Once responsibilities for the election moved to the clerk’s office, two people from voter registration, one Democrat and one Republican, also shifted to the clerk’s office, Schoon said.

Primary turnout, at just over 14 percent, was typically low and didn’t prepare the office for the general election.

“I think it was just overwhelming and unexpected because the primary was so slow,” Schoon said, adding turnout for the general election hit almost 53 percent.

Through the payroll before Election Day, Auditor Vicki Urbanik said, the election board had spent 43 percent of its personnel budget for the year

Martin has said the county’s 123 precincts required 615 poll workers for Election Day; 471 workers were in place for the general election this year, based on payroll data provided to Urbanik.

Additionally, Sheriff David Reynolds has said that he typically provided between six and eight deputies to deliver sorted absentee ballots to the precincts to be counted at the end of the day. Martin only requested four, and the ballots were never ready for pickup.

“There was an assumption made that there was sufficient staff. There was an assumption made there was contact with the sheriff and poll workers,” said J.J. Stankiewicz, the election board’s lone Democrat. “We never received a call that anything was amiss.”

The county election board and other policymakers say they never had any indication that anything was amiss:

Bengs, who with Martin serves as the two Republicans on the board, said the election board’s role is to serve as a watchdog for the election process, but the actual handling of the election and delegation of duties was by the clerk.

“We didn’t receive any request (from Martin) that there was additional staff needed. We could have done that, gone to the council, and they would have provided it for us,” Bengs said.

The county council never got such a request, said Vice President Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, who was on the ballot unopposed for a third term in office. He and Councilman Dan Whitten, D-At large, joined commissioners in calling for Martin’s resignation.

When the council started hearing there were needs for the election, Rivas said, “we were moving to have the matter before the council but we were told everything was fine.”

There were increasing concerns that preparations were insufficient, which were written off as pre-election rhetoric or isolated hiccups until it was too late:

Certainly before election night, when poll inspectors and judges flooded the lower level of the county administration building to drop off ballots, officials other than Schoon began to sense there were problems building.

On Oct. 24, on the steps of the county administration building, Valparaiso attorney Jim Harper, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for Secretary of State, held a news conference listing concerns about the election, including voters not receiving absentee ballots in a timely fashion and poll workers who were still waiting on their Election Day assignments.

Days later, on Oct. 27, the ballots of more than 100 voters cast at an early voting site in Portage were not properly initialed by two poll workers. While the number of ballots fluctuated over time, the snafu generated an emergency meeting by the election board and a preliminary decision to reach out to as many of those voters as possible and ask them to recast their ballots during early voting.

On Halloween, the election board again met to discuss the matter in a meeting that degenerated into a shouting match. Stankiewicz tried unsuccessfully to pass a resolution that the ballots be counted as-is instead of having people come back in.

“I realized it was becoming chaos,” said Whitten, who, like several other officials, attended the meeting, which he said descended into “screaming and a blame game.”

Still concerned about the staffing for the election, one of the issues brought up at the meeting, Whitten said that, “even after that, we reached out and said do you have what you need.”

Rivas and Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said in the days before the election, there was a lot of “noise” coming out of the voter registration office, but it seemed to be the usual concerns about finding poll workers.

“It was normal noise, normal politics,” Rivas said.

At 10 p.m. the night before the election, Blaney got a text from someone she knows who signed up as a poll worker but still didn’t know where to go on Election Day.

“It was one person, and it’s hard to get things perfect,” Blaney said. “Even then, I didn’t have major alarm.”

By the morning of Election Day, it was clear that there were serious problems, which then lingered for days afterwards:

By the morning of the election, Blaney, Rivas and many others throughout the county knew there were significant problems. In all, voting places for 13 precincts opened late because poll workers couldn’t get into buildings or not enough workers showed up. One polling place opened 2½ hours late. Two court hearings followed to keep 12 of those polls open a full 12 hours…

The night of the election it became increasingly apparent that almost 19,000 absentee ballots were not going to be counted at the voters’ precincts of origin. Bengs consulted with Stankiewicz and Ethan Lowe, the election board’s attorney, to figure out what to do, since Martin wasn’t at the county administration building.

“At that point, we had to try to conduct the election and the count the best we could with what we were dealt,” he said.

In the ensuing three days, the election board and commissioners provided ongoing updates on when preliminary results might be released. That occurred around noon on Nov. 9. As per state statute, the election board certified the results on Nov. 16, 10 days after the election, after spending more than 3½ hours going through provisional ballots.

There is hope, however, that a newly-elected clerk will address the problems before the next big election cycle in 2020:

Jessica Bailey takes over as clerk at the start of the new year and officials said she will play a large part in determining how elections are handled going forward.

Candidate filing for the county’s municipal elections starts in January, and officials also have pledged to buy new voting equipment, again with Bailey’s input, so it can get a dry run of sorts next year before the presidential election kicks into gear in 2020.

“I think the duties are very important. Whether or not it’s our office is not clear yet,” she said, adding that decision also will rest with the council and commissioners.

It’s up to the incoming clerk and the election board to determine what the best format for handling the election is, Porter County Republican Party Chair Michael Simpson said, adding he thinks it should stay with the clerk’s office, under a new system.

Rivas said he is encouraged by Bailey, who comes to the office without any baggage, to look at the vehicle that runs the election.

“It needs to be rebuilt,” he said. “Maybe good will come out. I hate to see a voter or a candidate go through this, but maybe this was the only way to get things in line.”

Porter County’s troubles are a helpful reminder that it’s worth paying serious attention to indications of potential problems as they arise, rather than simply dismissing them as partisanship or isolated instances – because sometimes they aren’t and Election Day isn’t the time to find out. If nothing else, few people in the county will be willing to ignore them going forward. Stay tuned …

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