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Candidate’s complaint prompts look into election

A complaint received by the Warren County District Attorney’s Office about the November election has prompted a criminal investigation.

County Solicitor Nathaniel Schmidt said that one purpose of Friday’s Board of Elections meeting was that the county “received a complaint forwarded from the District Attorney filed by a current candidate.”

That candidate is Connie Zaffino, who ran as a write-in candidate for the November election after finishing third in the spring primary.

Chief County Detective Brian Zeybel said there is an active investigation stemming from the complaint.

What are the possible outcomes?

Zeybel noted that like in “any criminal investigation, someone goes to jail.”

However, he also noted that he has found “nothing in the investigation right now that is criminal in nature.”

It’s also unlikely that any action taken as part of such an investigation would change the actual election results.

Zaffino wrote to the District Attorney’s Office which then provided the letter to the Board of Elections earlier this week.

Schmidt described the complaint as “general complaints about how the election was conducted.”

He noted that the “elections director has prepared a preliminary response to that investigation” and said that the complaint’s issues “should have been raised in a formal election contest or in a canvassing appeal that was filed with the court.”

He noted her approach as “procedurally, significant irregularities which raise the issue about whether the Board of Election has to take formal action at all.”

However, he said that “for purposes of transparency” and because of the DA’s office, which feels “compelled to look into things presented to their office,” he suggested Rivett’s response and noted that he’s “satisfied that by and large, this document answers everything adequately. I think a letter response to the district attorney is all that’s appropriate.”

He said the letter would also be shared with Zaffino and “fielded general complaints about the number of machines, the way the election was administered” and also addresses items that will be addressed by the commissioners functioning as the Board of Election in 2020 in advance of the presidential primary.

The mere allegation of inappropriate conduct was not received well by members of the board.

“Speaking for Ed (Burris) and I,” Board member Dan Glotz said they have served on the board several times before when the commissioners can’t because they’re up for election, “We take it very seriously. We don’t want to be accused of anything that has not been done correctly.”

Board members Glotz and Kim Exley were present while Burris was out of town.

“We are hiding nothing,” Glotz said.

The Board of Elections unanimously agreed to respond to the situation with Rivett’s response.

“Everything that I was involved with,” Glotz said, was stated accurately in Rivet’s report.

The board on Friday subsequently fielded several questions from Zeybel.

He asked if the Board of Elections had met to discuss the complaint or conducted an investigation into the allegations.

“It wasn’t addressed to us,” Glotz said of Zaffino’s complaint. “I was aware a letter had been submitted.”

He noted that there were 12 points raised in the complaint and that Rivett’s response also had 12 corresponding points.

Zeybel also asked other questions about the election process, including write-in adjudication which took over 12 hours on the Friday after the election.

“It took us a long time to go through the write-ins,” Glotz said, “and we as a board chose to remain here in the presence of Nathaniel (Schmidt) and Lisa (Rivett) through the entire duration…. (We) didn’t want to be accused of anything inappropriate.”

He noted Zaffino was present for the duration of the count.

“She sat right here and watched the whole thing,” he said. “We left no stone unturned.”

Schmidt noted that the Board of Elections could have completed the count over several days or set up different stations where individual board members were adjudicating ballots – meaning that multiple ballots were being reviewed simultaneously.

“We didn’t want to do that,” he said because the board was concerned Zaffino would not be “able to be present for the entire process.”

On voter intent specifically, Zeybel asked if the Board of Elections “physically have to look at them” – each individual ballot – “with your eyeballs.”

“We were very careful in determining voter intent,” Glotz responded.

Schmidt noted that “there were a number of votes that came in” for “Cindy Zaffino, for example.”

“Was it Cindy Morrison?” Glotz asked. “Connie Zaffino? Cindy Zaffino? Three separate individuals.”

Glotz said there were “just a handful” of such votes. “There weren’t too many of them.”

Schmidt then said that if “every single vote” such as that was adjudicated in Zaffino’s favor, she “wouldn’t have finished greater than fifth place.”

Further, he told the board that per the election code a petition challenging the count of such votes must be filed by “two days after the adjudication. This letter was dated November 25” or 19 days after the count.

“Not only would it have been late,” Schmidt added, “it’s not a formal pleading through the Prothonotary.”

All of this is not to say that the rollout of new voting machines didn’t have its share of challenges.

“No one could determine the turnout we had,” Rivett said, noting that a typical municipal election turnout is in the area of 16 percent while some precincts last month were over 40.

County officials indicated that the documents, both the complaint and the response, would be provided to the Times Observer. Those documents had not been received as of press time Friday.

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