Ballot documents whither under intense scrutiny

Inconsistencies in the city council’s appointment to Measure U Oversight Committee raise questions

Photos by Melissa Diaz Hernandez/The Valley Chronicle
The electronic version of Councilman Russ Brown’s ballot.

■ Melissa Diaz Hernandez / Editor

Jim Lineberger, director of the Community Pantry, was appointed by the Hemet City Council to fill a vacancy on the Measure U Citizen Oversight Committee created when attorney Robert Davis, Jr. resigned to accept an appointment to the Hemet Unified School District (HUSD) Board of Trustees. Lineberger’s appointment, however, has raised questions about the care the council takes in conducting its own business. It seems there’s a little problem with ballot counting.
In fact, the total number of votes reported the night of Lineberger’s appointment was more than the total votes/points possible. The Valley Chronicle submitted a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request to Hemet City Clerk Sarah McComas for the ballots. One of the newspaper’s subscribers noticed some inconsistencies in the electronic PDF version of the scanned ballots versus the printed version of the same document file.
When council appoints a new member to a committee there usually is more than one applicant. This results in a vote by the council to select the favorite candidate. Their voting method sometimes varies, but in this case each council member “ranked” the applicants to the Measure U Oversight committee.
In this method, each councilperson ranks their first three choices. The first choice is assigned three points, the second choice assigned two points, and the third choice assigned one point. With five council members and six points apiece, the total number of points possible is 30.
Unfortunately, the number of total votes, or points, recorded by McComas at the Oct. 24 city council meeting—when the council selected the new member of the Measure U Oversight Committee—equalled one point more than the possible total of 30. How could this happen?
Lineberger ultimately was appointed to the committee and received 12 of a possible 30 points. The runner-up, Bruce Wallis, received 11.

Requesting original ballots
Because of the apparent discrepancy in the total, The Valley Chronicle asked then-Mayor Linda Krupa about the miscount a couple days after the vote. One of the newspaper’s subscribers also took it upon herself to bring it up before the council during a November council meeting. The subscriber mentioned the miscount during the public communications portion of the meeting.
McComas acknowledged that night that there had been a miscount but said it would not have changed the outcome. Don Kritzer of Hemet received one less point than originally calculated, according to McComas, and that reduced the total number from 31 to 30.
That same subscriber had contacted us to inquire how she might request the actual ballots. The newspaper sent her the identical PDF file that we received from McComas by email.
When the subscriber printed the electronic version of the PDF, however, it didn’t appear to match the PDF file displayed on her computer screen. At that point, one has to wonder what’s going on? The main characteristic of a PDF file is that it is supposed to print exactly how it displays. Was the file corrupt or were there irregularities in the balloting?
When the subscriber came into our office, the electronic document received from McComas was printed and it matched what the subscriber had—but not the file displayed on the computer screen.
But then-Editor Mary Ann Morris, who had advanced PDF software, printed out the PDF after it was forwarded to her, and it did match the electronic version of the PDF sent by McComas. What’s going on here?

The printed version of Councilwoman Linda Krupa’s ballot.

Analyzing the ballots
A source with a background in IT and intelligence looked at the same PDF file using Foxit Phantom Business, software that can edit as well as analyze PDF files.
According to the software company’s website, it is able to edit text font type, style, size and color and effect. You can edit text in a paragraph and the text will automatically reflow and reformat as you edit. It is also able to streamline workflow by converting hard copy documents to PDF, then, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), convert the content into searchable—and editable—text.
The most valuable features of the software, relative to this incident, is its ability to compare PDF files, use color to highlight the differences between two PDF documents, and identify what, if anything, has been changed.
From what we can tell based on our analysis, Mayor Pro Tem Karlee Meyer’s ballot was the only one that was not altered in some way in the PDF form.
In the others, it was evident that numbers had been erased, paint had been used to white out and create numbers, text had been placed over the original, pen ink did not match (in one case three different inks were used), and ink had been smudged and written over with paint. In other words, the ballots were a mess. McComas mentioned that she assisted Councilman Russ Brown, Councilwoman Bonnie Wright and Meyer with converting their ballots from points to rankings. Initially, those three had assigned points instead of rankings, which was what was requested.

Discrepancies abound
Krupa and Mayor Michael Perciful’s documents printed with only one vote cast, while the PDF file shows three votes. Krupa’s two other votes appear to have been erased from the PDF as there are remnants of the base of a “1” and “2”. Wright’s ballot prints the same as the PDF. However, it appears paint is used on the document. Multiple different font types and colors are used, when there should be only two. Councilman Russ Brown’s name was cut off after the “R” at the point the document was printed.
Something else is evident—the slant in the letters does not match those of other letters. The consistency is off.
The newspaper sent the PDF document to another source for their interpretation.

This shows the rankings on the electronic version of Councilwoman Bonnie Wright’s ballot.

“When you open them [the ballots] in photoshop, you can see the black lines of the tables are really dirty,” stated the source. “That means somebody scanned the sheets to work on them. The numbers are altered too. And this is more noticeable in documents with the signature of Linda Krupa, Bonnie Wright, Russ [Brown] (not even the name is real pen) and [Michael] Perciful (which has the numbers 100 percent digital). The work on writing numbers in digital is also very low quality. It looks like it was made with Paint or some other non-professional software.”
When these findings were discovered, I requested to see the original ballots. McComas responded that she was unable to locate the original ballots cast that night. She offered to provide me with the tally sheet marked by contract City Attorney Eric Vail and the “certified” original copies. The paper had already obtained the latter. I explained to McComas that I did not understand why she was able to locate the tally sheet from that night but unable to locate the originals.
I went to city hall to speak directly with McComas.
I walked out with paper copies of the “certified” originals, which I already had via email from McComas in electronic form, and a photo of the original tally sheet. In person, McComas stated that the ballots were probably in a stack of papers in her office and that when she went to the binder for that night’s meeting, all she could find was the tally sheet.
The Valley Chronicle reached out to Krupa and explained the findings and offered to show her the inconsistencies in the ballots. She declined to comment.
These discrepancies were brought to our attention by an inquiring citizen; we just followed up and asked the hard questions.
The implications of this kindergarten cut and paste exercise could, however, be profound. Does it now call into question every ballot vote the city has conducted over the past several years under the current administration?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *