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Counting of paper ballots bases confidence on transparency Elections Board eager to counteract skeptics

Erie County Board of Elections officials demonstrated confidence in their paper ballot tabulation system Monday, even if some candidates remain wary of the potential for irregularities.

Because county budget cuts left the board without enough funding to support machine technicians, roughly 25 percent of county voters -- residents of 13 towns -- were forced to use old-fashioned paper ballots. Now elections officials begin to count those ballots, with results in the District 1 race for the County Legislature expected late today.

In the meantime, Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr and Democratic Deputy Commissioner Alonzo W. Thompson conducted a test on absentee ballots to strengthen public confidence in a system they say will prove fair and impartial. And after beginning their official count Monday of more than 85,000 ballots cast on paper in last week's primary elections, they said voters should have as much confidence as in machine ballots.

"That's why we're here doing this right in front of everybody," Thompson said. "We have to be under public scrutiny or people will lose confidence in the system."

But Kathy Konst of Lancaster, the Democratic candidate for the County Legislature's District 5 seat now held by Republican Denise E. Marshall, expressed doubt in the system on several fronts. She called first for Mohr to resign his position because of a "special relationship" he has with Marshall.

Konst faced Dean M. Powers in the Independence Party primary last Tuesday, with those votes yet to be counted. She said Mohr, the Lancaster GOP chairman, "handpicked" Powers to challenge her on the Independence line to help Marshall. After Mohr scheduled a fund-raising party at his home for the candidate she called his "protege," Konst said Mohr should at least recuse himself from the count. "This is a misuse of his position as commissioner and a blatant conflict of interest," she said.

As a result, Mohr said Monday he would step aside from any direct participation in the election for the Marshall seat. He emphasized that strict election rules guide counting of paper ballots, including stipulations that both GOP and Democratic teams be physically present for the process. But he said he would step away from the process anyway and designate someone else.

Mohr also addressed Konst's concerns that ballot boxes have not been adequately guarded since the end of polling last Tuesday.

"The concern is that the ballot boxes were not secured from the time they left the polling places," she said, contending that "gaping holes" exist in some boxes as ballot slots and that some ballots could be lost.

"There is as much security in those as a kid's piggy bank," Konst said.

But Mohr said that several procedures are in place to guard against any irregularities and that nobody has had access to the boxes while they were under guard of the Sheriff's Department.

"We've had a procedure worked out with each town clerk, and in this case, a Democratic town clerk," Mohr said. "There's been nothing to indicate any break in the procedure."

Still, Konst said she is prepared to pursue the matter through litigation if necessary.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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