Special Prosecutor: 'No' to Ballot Quarantine

Breaking with the wishes of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a special prosecutor appointed to investigate allegations of voter registration fraud said today there’s no need to quarantine the votes in question.—-

In a letter hand-delivered to the Hamilton County Board of Elections this afternoon, Special Prosecutor Michael O’Neill stated that the board can continue with its normal procedures for maintaining voter registration cards and ballots.

Deters launched an investigation into alleged voter registration fraud last week and recused himself from the probe Monday amid questions about possible conflicts of interest. Deters also serves as Southwest Ohio campaign chairman for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

When he stepped aside Monday in favor of a special prosecutor, Deters said at a press conference that he urged his replacement to quarantine more than 600 ballots cast during an “early voting window,” from Sept. 30-Oct. 6. Under Ohio law, people could register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time during that period.

Deters didn’t want those ballots counted until after the investigation was completed, which likely wouldn’t have been until well after Election Day.

In his three-paragraph letter today, however, O’Neill said that wasn’t necessary.

“This will also serve to confirm that my investigation, while ongoing, does not require that the Board of Elections alter in any manner, the legally sufficient policy/procedure for maintaining registration cards and/or ballots, including those received (during the early voting window).”

In a press release Saturday announcing the investigation, Deters had cited unspecified “numerous credible complaints of voter irregularity” to justify the probe. But local election officials said they didn’t file any complaints.

On Monday Deters said his office and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office — run by Republican Simon Leis Jr. — had received complaints about people being bribed with money, cigarettes and alcohol to vote. Those people, Deters added, didn’t have to show any identification to register to vote, but merely provided their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Deters office this week rejected a public records request by CityBeat to get copies of the complaints.

A judge appointed O'Neill as special prosecutor after Deters stepped aside.

Further complicating matters, Deters and the Board of Elections couldn’t agree on the number of ballots cast during the early voting window. Deters said 610 were cast, but board members said the correct number was 671.

Under the procedures used by the Board of Elections, a decision on the quarantine request was needed by Saturday, before those ballots were mixed with other ones.

In his letter, O’Neill thanked board members for their cooperation in his investigation.

“In light of the highly-charged atmosphere surrounding the upcoming election, I feel it is necessary that any investigation be conducted in a fair, efficient and deliberate manner,” O’Neill wrote. “Again, thank you for your cooperation in this matter.”

The so-called early voting window was created when the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a sloppily written law in 2005 that enabled all Ohio residents to vote absentee. In their haste, lawmakers inadvertently allowed a week-long period when voters could register and vote all at once.

Ohio is a hotly contested battleground state that proved crucial in the 2004 presidential election and could be the deciding factor again this year. If even a few hundred ballots are ruled ineligible here and cast out, Ohio’s 20 electoral votes could go to a different candidate and swing the race.

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