Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Report blames toxic behavior for Porter County election snafu

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By LILY REX

Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R) has called for the resignation of two Porter County officials, following a report on Porter County’s 2018 general election by Ball State’s Voting Systems Technical Oversight Program (VSTOP).

Following VSTOP’s report, Lawson called for Democrat Director of Voter Registration Kathy Kozuszek (D) and Election Board member J.J. Stankiewicz (D) to resign.

The 2018 general election in Porter County was rife with problems that included 13 polling places opening late for a lack of poll workers, thousands of absentee ballots not being delivered on time or counted, and final results delayed for three days.

The problems occurred after the County Election Board transferred election duties from the Voter Registration Office to the office of the County Clerk. Former Clerk Karen Martin (R) had never run an election before, and was on the ballot herself for County Auditor.

Problems leading up to the election, including an instance of poll worker error at the Portage early voting site, poll worker complaints, and shouting matches at Election Board meetings, as well as the events of Election Day, prompted a risk-limiting audit (RLA) by VSTOP and an investigation by the Secretary of State.

VSTOP earlier this month released its findings on the root causes of the election debacle, which Lawson reviewed and subsequently commented on in a public letter to new Porter County Clerk Jessica Bailey and Porter County legislators State Sen. Karen Tallian (D) and State Rep. Ed Soliday (R).

The VSTOP team used interviews with 27 individuals to gather information on the events of Election Day, and made the following disclaimer: “As a caveat to considering the information set forth below, the interviews were statements of individual understandings of events leading up to and during the election and should be interpreted with caution as some statements from the interviews were rumor and innuendo.”

Ultimately, VSTOP concluded that “turf issues” between the Voter Registration Office and the Office of the Clerk compounded with issues of personal pride and vindictive behavior between Martin and Kozuszek were at the center of the problems in the Election. They reported that a “bitter feud” between Martin and Kozuszek contributed to tensions and an eventual breakdown in communication between the major political parties in Porter County.

In her letter, Lawson wrote, “The nonpartisan character of VSTOP presents a challenge when it comes to focusing on certain problems that, in my view, ought to be highlighted. I therefore submit this letter in an effort to reveal the core problems of Porter County’s 2018 General Election.”

Lawson blamed three County officials--Martin, Kozuszek, and Stankiewicz, and a toxic atmosphere they all fostered, for the bulk of the problems. Since Martin is out of office after losing a bid for County Auditor, Lawson called for Kozuszek and Stankiewicz to resign.

Lawson’s assessment of the damage was scathing: "In my opinion, based on the testimony of 19 other interviews and several other accounts, as Indiana's secretary of state and a former county clerk, none of these three individuals belong in or near the election process.”

“These three individuals each contributed to the dysfunction, miscommunication and administrative incompetence that plagued the election process in Porter County. Even though each was aware of potential problems leading up to the election, personality conflicts, vindictive behavior and personal pride prevented any action from being taken,” Lawson wrote.

“Not only did these individuals put a heavy burden on dedicated employees within county government who were attempting to execute their responsibilities properly, they failed to meet the expectations and needs of Porter County voters,” Lawson wrote.

Stankiewicz resigned Monday following further calls for his resignation after a video of him shouting at new County Clerk Jessica Bailey just before a March 8 Election Board meeting went public. Though a separate incident, Lawson cited the behavior in that video as evidence of Stankiewicz’s toxicity to the election process.

Lawson said Stankiewicz wrongfully accused local police officers of leaving ballots unattended in the confusion of Election Day, and he never participated in an interview with her about what went wrong after what she terms a “series of evasive and puzzling emails” and rude correspondence with her Executive Assistant.

As for Martin, the VSTOP report suggests that Martin may have been concerned that asking for help in the election would hurt her chances in her bid for Auditor and had a lack of trust in the more experienced individuals around her.

The VSTOP team also wrote, “It appears that Clerk Martin seriously underestimated the complexities of overseeing a major election and this was compounded by her reluctance to accept help from those who had more experience operating elections.”

Lawson wrote, “It is unfortunate that Clerk Martin allowed her personal pride to prevent her from executing her duties properly. Clerk Martin contributed to an ongoing, bitter feud between herself and Ms. Kozuszek, and engaged in unprofessional and uncooperative behavior, even during public meetings.”

“Clerk Martin placed a higher priority on proving Ms. Kozuszek wrong than in serving the voters of Porter County, and refused help even when it was clear that the County was ill-prepared for Election Day,” Lawson wrote.

As for Kozuszek, Lawson wrote she is a key figure in Porter County’s election problems because she “contributed to a wildly chaotic environment during the entire General Election,” went “so far as to actively prevent official business from taking place in order to prove a point,” and took no responsibility for what went wrong on Election Day.

“In her interview, Ms. Kozuszek laid the entirety of the election issues at the Clerk’s feet, while admitting no wrongdoing or unprofessional behavior of her own, despite multiple witnesses speaking to the contrary,” Lawson wrote. “Ms. Kozuszek seemed to relish the negative consequences experienced by the County on Election Day, unable to separate her extreme dislike of Clerk Martin from her responsibilities as a public servant.”

VSTOP made recommendations for the County going forward. First, VSTOP suggest they be allowed to observe the next two elections and conduct RLAs to audit any races with margins of less than five percent.

They also suggested the Clerk create a well-defined written protocol for handling absentee ballots, create an updated election checklist, and hire additional staff for the election, and the County should consider counting absentee ballots at one central location and adopting the use of vote centers to cut down on the number of needed poll workers.

As for poll workers, VSTOP recommended the County form its own poll worker manual, keep a list of reliable back-up workers, train all workers in person, and not involve the Voter Registration office in recruitment efforts.

The VSTOP team noted that some of these changes have been proposed in legislation, HB 1217, by Rep. Soliday. Lawson expressed full support for HB 1217 in her letter and wrote that she in confident in the new Clerk’s abilities.

 

 

Posted 3/21/2019

 
 
 
 

 

 

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