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Commissioners agree to continue election review

The county commissioners on Wednesday informally agreed to continue, and possibly expand, their election review.

The commissioners said they plan to review the results of the 2022 election from the Middlesex Township South voting precinct following the election this November.

That precinct was one of the three that were randomly selected for the review of the results of the 2020 election. The review of the first two precincts, Butler City 4-1 and Donegal Township, began July 27 and was completed Aug. 11.

The initial plan was to the review results from the 2020 election from all three precincts, but the commissioners decided to review the 2022 results from Middlesex Township South instead.

Solicitor Wil White, who is serving as interim director of elections, said the review of all three precincts could have been completed in the allotted three-week period if the review hadn’t had to be suspended for a few days due to illness.

The review of Butler 4-1 and Donegal Township found only one discrepancy in a Donegal Township ballot, in which a voter marked one vote outside of the circle on the ballot. The scanning machine that counts votes counted it as an undervote, but that vote was counted in the hand count during the review.

Commissioner Kevin Boozel said the commissioners learned about the vote counting process from the review, and the review strengthened his confidence that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and the results were accurately counted.

“What is the cost of integrity?” Leslie Osche, chairwoman of the commissioners, said.

Boozel said the review was a worthwhile endeavor that he hopes rebuilds integrity in elections.

He said the review cost the county about $10,000 and reviewing the Middlesex Township South precinct would add to the cost.

The Election Review Commission, which was created following the 2020 election, recommended conducting reviews following every election, Osche said.

She said there is no uniform method among counties in the state for adjudicating ballots, and ballots with undervotes have to be looked at by human eyes to determine voter intent.

Commissioner Kimberly Geyer said the review was similar to an audit conducted of a county department to examine efficiency.

The review highlights the need for voter education, and the bipartisan Election Review Commission also recommended publishing a voter’s guide explaining the different methods of voting available to voters, she said.

When a ballot filled out at a polling site is placed in the scanner, Geyer said the scanner informs the voter about any races in which he or she didn’t cast a vote, and gives the voter a chance to complete the ballot, or complete and submit a new ballot.

People who vote through mail-in ballots don’t have those options, she said. Mail-in ballots offer convenience to voters, but those ballots can get lost in the mail, Geyer said.

White said the Middlesex Township South ballots have been segregated from the rest of the county ballots, and the review of those ballots can be completed in 24 hours. Reviewing other precincts would take longer because those ballots would have to be located and segregated before they are counted.

The reviews involved an election bureau employee reading each ballot to a panel of election judges and poll workers in batches of 100 ballots. Those ballots are then scanned by voting machines. The results of the hand count is then compared to the scanned count.

White, who administered the review, said it took 7.51 hours to hand count the 600 ballots from Butler 4-1, and 10.82 hours to hand count the 1,061 ballots from Donegal Township. In both hand counts, the scanner counted batches of 100 ballots in two or three minutes. Combined, it took 18.32 hours to hand count 1,661 ballots.

A total of three potential discrepancies were found, White said. One was found in the Butler 4-1 ballots and two were found in the Donegal Township ballots.

The Butler discrepancy and one of the Donegal discrepancies were similar. Citing the Butler 4-1 review, White said the hand count found 15 votes cast for a presidential candidate in a batch of 100 ballots, but the scanner counted 14 votes for that candidate. That batch was recounted by hand, and 14 votes for that candidate were confirmed.

The third discrepancy discovered on a Donegal Township ballot involved an undervote found by the scanner. The hand count determined the voter intended to vote for a congressional candidate, but marked the ballot outside of the circle for that candidate.

White said the review consumed 169.75 hours of work by elections bureau staff, facilities and operations department staff, and other administrative employees. He said the actual vote counts took less time than the work it took to prepare for the review. The Sheriff’s Office changed the lock on the door to the room where review was conducted to secure the ballots, he added.

The review reinforces the need to separate and segregate mail-in and absentee ballots as they arrive, and before they are opened, canvassed and counted, and to keep them separated by precinct after they have been counted. That was not done in the 2020 election, White said.

Another lesson learned is that the scanners perform surprisingly well by counting imperfect marks on ballots, he said.

The review results also suggest it might be worthwhile for undervotes and overvotes to be reviewed by the election computation board in a process similar to a mandated recount, White said. Currently, the bureau does not review scanner reported undervotes and overvotes for mail-in and absentee ballots during canvassing, he said.

Osche said Middlesex Township South might not be the only precinct to be reviewed following the November election.