Feud erupts in Franklin County auditor's race

Nerves are raw in the closely contested Franklin County auditor's race.

It started Tuesday when Republican Commission Chairman Brad Peck accused Auditor Zona Lenhart, a Democrat, of endangering the integrity of the voting process.

Lenhart, the 21-year incumbent, was 125 votes behind Republican Matt Beaton after Monday's tally.

In an e-mail he sent to elected officials and the media, Peck questioned Lenhart's visit to the county elections center Tuesday and the scheduling of a ballot count for today.

Lenhart fired back by accusing Peck of being too involved in Beaton's campaign to participate in the elections process.

"You are mistrustful because, if given the opportunity, you would do what you are inferring that I am doing," Lenhart wrote. "On the other hand, Mr. Peck, you have used your position to inject yourself into a process that you have a very vested and biased position, having been personally involved in Mr. Beaton's campaign from the beginning."

In the e-mail, Lenhart also told Peck he should recuse himself from the county canvassing board that reviews ballots because of his "vested and biased position," and she pointed out she was recusing herself from that board.

In his e-mail, Peck said he had received three phone calls reporting that Lenhart had been at the elections center, and asked, "has she been working with the ballots?" He added, "I recognize she is the auditor but the appearance is not helpful in maintaining voter confidence in the process."

Peck also questioned why Elections Administrator Diana Killian had decided to count ballots again today, when she earlier had said no more would be counted until Nov. 22. He also asked why the number of ballots to be counted apparently had changed since Monday.

Peck did not return a Herald call Tuesday evening.

Lenhart said in a phone interview that there were no open ballots when she stopped at the auditor's annex earlier Tuesday. She said as auditor she is responsible for overseeing the process.

Lenhart also said she recused herself from the county canvassing board, which certifies election results and determines voters' intent when it isn't clear. She said she also has not handled any ballots during the election.

Beaton said he also received calls from Republicans reporting that Lenhart was at the elections center, and he went there himself Tuesday.

When the county auditor is on the ballot, Beaton said, the person needs to stay at arm's length from the counting process.

But Lenhart said the person who has been acting unusual is Peck, who she said has been at the elections center all week.

Peck, who has been active in the county Republican Party, previously has denied encouraging Beaton to run for auditor.

And Beaton said Peck has not had a more prominent role in his campaign than any other Republican. He said Peck has answered questions he had about the process.

Beaton said Peck also did not financially contribute to his campaign, even though he said he asked him to do so.

State Public Disclosure Commission reports on campaign funding for Beaton and Lenhart were not available online Tuesday.

Beaton said when a race is as close as the auditor's race has become, it emphasizes how important individual votes are. He said it also causes people to look closely at the counting process.

It is important to maintain the appearance of integrity in the count, he said.

Monday's results showed Beaton with 8,421 votes, or a little more than 50 percent, while Lenhart had 8,296 votes, or alittle under 50 percent.

Beaton said that while statistically his lead is likely to continue, the race isn't over yet.

Meanwhile, Killian said with the close race, she decided it made sense to count more ballots today. She said election workers will be counting about 120 ballots today.

By state law, if the county has 200 or more ballots, the auditor's office must do a daily count, Lenhart said. And she said it's county practice to count ballots even when the number is under that so the number left to count at the end of the election is low.

The number of ballots remaining changes as military votes are received, Killian said. And Lenhart said the office still is getting ballots in the mail that were postmarked by election day but apparently were misrouted in the mail.

"This is normal," Killian said. "You just don't notice it as much when there is a bigger spread."

Results from today's count should be posted no later than5 p.m. A final count is scheduled for Nov. 22 after the canvassing board meets.

Results from the Nov. 2 general election will be certified by the county on Nov. 23, and by the state on Dec. 2.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com