Registrar had vote-count issues before -- Vu says there’s no connection between Ohio case and Chula Vista
Union Tribune (2015-01-23) Greg Moran
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Registrar had vote-count issues before
Vu says there’s no connection between Ohio case and Chula Vista
By Greg Moran
8 p.m.Jan. 23, 2015
San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu at Interfaith Community Services in Escondido. Gary Warth
The brewing legal battle over the outcome of the Chula Vista City Council race between John Mc Cann
and Steve Padilla isn’t the first time Registrar of Voters Michael Vu has faced questions over how he counted — or in this case, didn’t count — ballots.
Vu’s contentious history as the elections director for Cuyahoga County in Ohio for four years could shadow the pending lawsuit filed over the outcome of the race.
Republican Mc Cann
defeated Democrat Padilla by a mere two votes. On Jan. 2, lawyer John Moot filed a legal contest to the election on behalf of Chula Vista voter Aurora Clark, a Democrat.
The challenge contends that Vu, who came to work in San Diego County in 2007 as the assistant registrar and was made the registrar in 2012 after the retirement of Deborah Seiler, improperly excluded at least 15 provisional and mail ballots that should have been counted.
Vu was hired by the county just weeks after a tumultuous and controversial tenure as the elections director for Cuyahoga County in Ohio ended with his resignation.
Among the controversies were charges by liberal voting rights groups that thousands of voters in the 2004 election — many of them Democrats — were disenfranchised because their registrations were lost. It also identified 600 voters who filled out registrations and tried to vote with provisional ballots, but had those votes rejected.
Also during that time two high-ranking supervisors in Vu’s office were indicted and convicted of rigging a recount of ballots cast for the 2004 presidential election. Ohio law required a random recount of 3 percent of the votes cast in an election. If the hand tally differed from the machine results, a full recount of all ballots would occur under the law.
The two were convicted of selecting certain precincts to recount ahead of time so that the hand recount would not differ from the totals on the machine votes, triggering the wholesale recount.
Prosecutors said they weren’t trying to steer the election, but were simply lazy. A full hand recount of 687,000 ballots would have taken weeks.
Though the two workers were convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, the convictions were later wiped out. The two workers won a motion for a new trial, after the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the original judge on the case was biased. The pair then agreed to a plea deal that gave them probation. The records in the case were then sealed.
John Moot, the lawyer who filed the election contest in Chula Vista, said he may try to raise Vu’s history in Ohio if the case comes down to determining if Vu abused his discretion over what ballots to count, Moot said.
“There are indications there were problems with provisional ballots in Ohio,” Moot said. “People were showing up, casting provisional ballots, and there were issues with that.”
In an interview, Vu said comparisons between Ohio and the Chula Vista race are wrong.
“There are two different situations altogether,” he said.
Elections laws in each state have different rules when it comes to determining which ballots can be counted and which cannot, said Vu, who is registered with no party preference. The elections system in Ohio is also more partisan, with the director being appointed by a board made up of Democrats and Republicans, for example. Vu was hired by a county manager.
The contest in the Chula Vista race, which Mc Cann
won by two votes, contends that Vu should have allowed the 15 provisional and mail ballots to be counted. Provisional ballots had addresses that did not match the address on file with the registrar, the lawsuit said, though the signatures of the voters on the ballot and on file matched.
Moot said he doesn’t know if the 15 ballots are votes for Padilla or not.
“These were votes that if you look at existing law on provisional ballots would appear to be ones that should be legally counted,” he said. “They’re validly registered, the signatures match, and they are in Chula Vista.”
The suit said the law and guidelines for elections officials say those votes should be counted, because the signature is the key data point. Vu said that he’s confident the ballots were handled correctly.
“For us, we have a good legal reason why we denied them based on practices consistent with the law and our practices were consistent across the board,” he said.
The convictions weren’t the only issue during his tenure. The May 2006 primary was marred by several breakdowns. It took a week to count all the votes. New optical-scan readers for absentee ballots didn’t work, meaning all 17,000 of those votes had to be counted by hand.
There weren’t enough poll workers, and those that showed up weren’t well trained. In all a special review panel hired by the county in the wake of the primary to analyze what happened placed much of the blame on Vu and his staff.
He almost lost his job that summer but was kept on to preside over the fall election, which largely was without incident. He resigned after that election and by April 2007 was in San Diego.
U-T Watchdog has submitted a request for public records that might explain to what extent his history in Ohio was taken into account when he was hired here.