When news first came out more than 1,100 ballots from November’s general election were discovered in late January of this year inside a courthouse storage cabinet, it certainly raised a lot of concerns.
What if they changed the outcome of an election?
Did my vote count?
How does this kind of thing happen?
Are there more missing ballots?
And, most importantly, why wasn’t the public informed until almost four weeks after the ballots had been found?
Clerk Debbie Stewart assured county residents all votes had been tallied, meaning the debacle, although highly embarrassing to the county, would not generate the electoral fiasco that would have resulted from any major result changes.
The winners stayed the winners, and the Clerk’s office moved into this year’s municipal election, hoping to shed the shadow of its former leader and a mistake that threatens the trust put into the running of local elections.
Stewart, a Republican, revealed she and a Democratic election worker, Jill Quackenbush, found 1,148 unopened ballots on Jan. 21 in the Election Room. She said the unopened envelopes included ballots from early voting at the downtown Government Center and mail-in ballots.
The ballots were discovered in a storage cabinet that requires keys from both parties and the clerk’s own cabinet key to unlock. Stewart later filed a request with Howard Circuit Court Judge Lynn Murray for a court order to open the ballots.
The only race Stewart and Quackenbush found with a margin close enough to potentially be impacted by the discovery was the race for Center Township’s three-member board.
The Howard County clerk in 2018 was Kim Wilson, who had a history of issues with local elections.
Howard County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Skiles said the incident “reinforces our belief that the Clerk’s office has been fraught with incompetence and a lackadaisical attitude for years, especially from the former clerk.”
Stewart said she was putting together a procedures manual that would “outline responsibilities for early voting workers, confined voting workers and Election Room workers, to make certain all workers are performing their duties, with checks and backup measures, to ensure every eligible vote is counted and counted on time.”
It’s laudable that Stewart is making changes. But one change she should make before the Nov. 5 municipal election is to be as transparent as possible. The fact there were unopened ballots should have been announced before a secretive recount process was in place.