Court names Hatt, not Peters, as winner

Mac Cordell Press Editor

January 14, 2014

London has a new councilman.

Trint Hatt was declared the winner on Monday, Jan. 13, in the London City Council’s first ward representative.

Madison County Common Pleas Court Judge Eamon Costello ruled that while Josh Peters had earlier been declared the winner, in fact Hatt actually received more votes.

“The court finds that candidate Hatt was elected by a margin of 49 votes to 48 votes,” said Costello.

Costello presided over the hearing, where the burden of proof, by clear and convincing evidence, laid with Hatt.

In December, Hatt filed a petition contesting the results of November’s election in the contest. Ohio Revised Code gives the responsibility of determining a contested election to the Common Pleas Court.

Costello called it “a serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly.”

He acknowledged that both sides had valid agreements. He added that Ohio laws and secretary of state directives, all governing elections, “can be confusing and difficult to determine the direction the law requires you to proceed.”

Hatt, Peters and David Ridenour all filed as write-in candidates for the first-ward seat. There were no listed candidates on the ballot.

Unofficial results from election night named Hatt as the winner with 36 votes to Peters’ 20 and Ridenour’s 18.

However, after all the absentee and provisional ballots were counted, the board declared Peters the winner with 46 votes. The official canvas, held Nov. 26, affirmed that number. Hatt finished second with 44 votes. Ridenour polled 21.

A Dec. 10 recount, requested by Hatt, failed to alter the official canvass.

Later that month, Costello swore in several members of London City Council, including Peters. Peters then served as a councilman during the Jan. 2, council meeting.

At Monday’s hearing, Bucyrus-based attorney Russell J. Long, representing Hatt, argued that 11 ballots were discarded because of a technicality. On the rejected ballots, the voter wrote the name of the candidate, but did not fill in the oval indicating they wanted to vote for a write-in candidate. Five of the ballots included the first and last name Trint Hatt, while two had Peters’ name. He said, if counted, Hatt would be the winner by one vote.

“This election, right now, is being determined by an oval instead of the names written on the line by eligible voters,” the attorney said.

Long argued the Ohio Revised Code that indicates a ballot should not be rejected for a technical reason unless it is impossible to determine a voter’s intent. The petition also cited an Ohio Secretary of State directive that “if the voter has written in an eligible write-in candidate’s first and last names, the board of elections must count this as a valid write in vote.”

Tim Ward, director of the Madison County Board of Elections, testified that the board never made a determination about voter intent because the ballot had been rejected by the optical scan machine. He explained that once a voter demonstrates they understand they need to fill in the oval to vote, by not filling in an oval, they have expressed a desire not to vote.

“The voter’s choice was that they did not mark the oval,” said Ward. “That was the voters’ choice. They decided not to vote in that race.” He said if a voter had incorrectly marked the entire ballot, it would have shown the voter did not understand the process and their vote would have been counted.

Long asked Board of Elections member Deborah Cochran about the relevance of filling in the oval if all the candidates are write-ins.

“That’s what the directions ask you to do,” she said.

She added, “I guess i would have to say, ‘you just have to follow the directions.’”

Madison County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Pronai represented the board of elections. He argued a ballot with no oval filled in should not be counted, by Ohio Law. He said it is the responsibility of the board of elections to follow election rules consistently.

“Mr. Ward and the board followed the law and made a decision based on the law,” argued Pronai. “It is the same law they have followed in every election to this point and it is the same law they will following every election after.”

Long argued that because all the candidates were write ins, voters may not have understood they needed to fill in the oval on that race.

“It is a special situation and it must be viewed that way,” said Long.

Costello agreed the situation was nearly unprecedented. The closest case law he found dated to 1938. He said the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, “the writing of the name shows the intention of the voter.”

He said since that time, Ohio law has required courts to “liberally interpret” rules on the side of the voter.

He said it is that liberal interpretation that led him to rule in favor of Hatt, ousting Peters.

“I didn’t have an issues with Mr. Peters,” said Hatt. “The issue was 11 votes out there that were not counted.”

He said he was pleased “those voices were heard.”

The new council member said he is anxious to get to work.

“I am excited,” said Hatt. “I want to work and do my best for the city of London. It has been one of my goals, to be on council, for a long time.”

The next London City Council meeting will be held on Thursday, Jan. 16.

Costello said his ruling could be challenged directly to the Ohio Supreme Court.

In a release Monday about close elections, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said, “Close elections reinforce our focus to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat in Ohio.

He added, “When a single vote can have such a big impact in so many places, you can understand why we focus so heavily on accuracy of the voter rolls and the integrity of the elections process, and why we encourage every voter to take their right and responsibility to vote seriously.”