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Confusion clouds Newton Falls 3rd Ward council race

Ballots allowed voters to choose two candidates

NEWTON FALLS — The Trumbull County Board of Elections erroneously allowed up to 45 people who voted early in the Newton Falls 3rd Ward council race to choose up to two of the three candidates.

Those overvotes will be counted, said board Director Stephanie Penrose.

But as of March 13, the board started notifying those voting that they can vote for only one candidate, she said. Ballots with votes for more than one after that date won’t be counted, she said.

It will lead to an unusual situation when the board counts ballots on April 28, the new primary date.

The board will do two hand counts of the ballots in this particular race — a count for those who were informed they could vote for up to two candidates; and a count for those who were notified, beginning March 13, that they could vote for only one, Penrose said.

“Those who didn’t get a notice will have their ballots counted, even if they voted for two candidates,” she said. “If it’s a problem, it’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get there.”

There were 45 people who voted by March 12 in that race who could have cast ballots for more than one candidate, she said.

Penrose said she wouldn’t be surprised if this matter ends up in court.

CONTROVERSIAL

This particular race, which has been mired in controversy for months, pits Lyle Waddell, the current 3rd Ward councilman appointed in October 2019 to the seat after nearly two terms as mayor, against Tesa Spletzer and Dougle Hankins. The top two finishers in the April 28 runoff move to the November general election with the top vote-getter in the fall serving the remainder of the term, ending Dec. 31, 2021. The seat will be on the ballot again in 2021.

The board learned of the issue when Newton Falls Law Director A. Joseph Fritz sent Penrose and William J. Danso, an assistant county prosecutor who works with the elections board, a March 10 letter stating that ballots allowed 3rd Ward voters to vote for no more than two candidates. Penrose said Danso agreed March 12 to have the board stop allowing people to vote for two candidates. March 12 was the last day people were permitted to vote for two, she said.

Regarding the board allowing people to vote for more than one candidate in this race, Fritz wrote March 10: “This designation is patently incorrect.” He added, “Please advise me of the proposed remedy as soon as possible to avoid any invalidation of this election.”

The village charter doesn’t address how many candidates can be selected in a primary runoff. But Ohio elections law states that voters are allowed to vote for only one candidate for one seat in a runoff.

“I didn’t tell the board what to do,” Fritz said. “I said, ‘It’s always been one candidate under state law.’ This is atypical. I don’t have a dog in the race. I saw the error and it was pretty serious, but I left it up to them. It might not make a difference or it might. If there’s an issue after the election a candidate might take action. There’s a distinct possibility council will do nothing.”

A MISTAKE

Waddell said the board made a mistake.

“At this point, this is the best remedy that they have,” he said. “I’m going to follow this through the process.”

But Spletzer and Hankins said the board should have continued to allow voters to cast ballots for up to two candidates.

“I have never known an election to change its directions midway through the process,” Spletzer said. “I feel it’s just wrong. A lot of people were told to vote for two and now they’re going to be confused voting for one. I feel this is an attempt to discredit me. It wasn’t done intentionally, but I have put out campaign literature to vote for two and the process is turned upside down.”

She also pointed out that the ballot language fails to mention the seat is for an unexpired term that ends Dec. 31, 2021.

“It doesn’t make sense that some people get to vote for two and some get to vote for one” Spletzer said.

Hankins said: “The voters should be allowed to vote for two. I think two is OK. It comes down to who the voters want. I think people are making a bigger deal out of it than it is. People will vote for who they want to vote for.”

COMPLAINTS

This is the latest controversy in this race.

First, there were complaints from some when Waddell was appointed to the open seat in October 2019. After the appointment, Waddell resigned as mayor with less than three months left in his term. He couldn’t run for re-election because of the village’s term-limits law.

Then the elections board determined in October 2019 that the seat would be on the 2021 ballot — only to change its mind a month later to put it on in 2020 based on Fritz’s legal opinion, which was initially rejected.

After that, Spletzer and two other village residents filed formal complaints with the board of elections questioning the eligibility of Waddell, contending his candidacy was in violation of the village charter’s term-limits provision. But the board voted in January to reject those objections.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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