VALPARAISO — Three local election officials and the bad blood among them are to blame for the bulk of last fall's Election Day problems and delayed vote count, according to a scathing report by the Indiana secretary of state's office.
"These three individuals each contributed to the dysfunction, miscommunication and administrative incompetence that plagued the election process in Porter County," a letter from Secretary of State Connie Lawson that accompanied the results of a local ballot audit done on behalf of her office states.
She names former Republican Porter County Clerk Karen Martin, current Democratic Election Board President J.J. Stankiewicz and Kathy Kozuszek, the current Democratic director at the Porter County Voter Registration Office.
"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 said.
"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."
She suggested watching a video of the March 8 Porter County Election Board meeting for a sample "of how toxic the 2018 election was."
Lawson called on Stankiewicz and Kozuszek to resign their election posts with the county. Martin lost her election bid last fall for county auditor and no longer is in a position with county government.
"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," Lawson wrote. "Porter County voters deserve better."
Martin and Kozuszek said Wednesday they had not yet seen the secretary of state's report, and Stankiewicz could not be reached for comment.
'Take this report very seriously'
The report from the state comes on the heels of interviews and a partial ballot audit conducted on behalf of the secretary of state's office. Lawson's office was turned to for help after the county's 2018 general election tally was three days late as a result of numerous problems, including 12 polling places opening late, a shortage of poll workers and accusations of mishandled ballots.
All of the problems happened with backdrop of public vitriol between election officials.
"The two reports lay bare the worst example of public service failure I have ever seen — ego, nepotism, lack of accountability, self over service, and a general lack of respect for others," Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said in a prepared statement.
"We need to take this report very seriously," she said.
"This is a problem that has been brewing for years, and there are no signs of willingness from a few of the more seasoned players to put down swords and work together. It's still an incredibly toxic atmosphere."
Blaney said she would like to see the suggested resignations happen immediately and wants to see passage of the local election reform proposed in House Bill 1217.
That bill calls for Porter County to count absentee ballots at one location rather than disbursing them to their respective polling places on Election Day, which was a failure of the last election, according to Lawson.
The proposed legislation also would prohibit an appointed member of the election board or voter registration office from being a relative of the person making the appointment, she said.
Kozuszek married Porter County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Jeff Chidester after he appointed her to her job at the county's voter registration office.
"I look forward to being part of the bipartisan effort of true public servants (and we have many good ones), led by clerk Jessica Bailey, to restore voter confidence and fix this monumental problem," Blaney said.
"Porter County deserves better," Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at-large, said. "Although the council has no direct oversight of the election, we had to witness the train wreck that was the election. It was an embarrassment and a failure. What transpired at the election board meeting merely demonstrates further problems. Those identified in the (secretary of state's) report as 'having negative impacts,' to put it mildly, should take note and step aside."
Reforms proposed for Porter
The secretary of state's office is calling on the county to consider 18 proposals to address the problems of the past, including having the Indiana Voting System Technical Oversight Program based at Ball State University oversee the next two elections, and have audits done for any race with a margin of victory of less than 5 percent.
The county also is called on to consider adopting the hotly debated vote-center model, which would involve fewer voting sites and fewer poll workers, but allow voters to cast ballots at whatever site is most convenient.
The county clerk also should hire additional staff to prepare for and carry out elections, as well as create "an updated election checklist to make sure that all duties and responsibilities are covered leading up to and during an election," the report said.
"Hiring temporary bipartisan staff may be in order to assure the same problems do not occur again," according to the report.
Several reforms are suggested for poll worker recruitment and training, including having county political parties find workers.
"Training for poll workers should be highly organized, carried out in a professional manner by more than one subject matter expert," the report says. "Multiple opportunities for training should be offered."
On the issue of election oversight, the report says, "If any county employee refuses to conduct election work required by the employee’s job description or assignment, that employee should be reprimanded in writing per county personnel policy."
Recent arrests booked into Porter County Jail