Election day shenanigans are nothing new here in Lake County, where absentee ballots have been found stuffed in a car trunk, voters have been offered new sidewalks in exchange for allegiance and vote fraud investigations evoke thoughts of nearby Chicago.
But after a snafu temporarily held up the results of the tight presidential primary between Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, county officials were scrambling Wednesday to reassure the public that slow counting, not vote manipulation, was to blame.
With virtually all the rest of Indiana's vote counted by 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and after Obama had congratulated Clinton on her "apparent" victory by 2 percentage points, Lake County -- Indiana's second-largest -- was only reporting about a quarter of its votes. The mayor of Gary, a major Obama supporter, promised that his city's results could put the Illinois senator over the top in Indiana and essentially seal the nomination.
The suspense bred suspicion. And as the night wore on, television pundits and poll watchers across the country, noting the county's proximity to Chicago, demanded answers. Hammond Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr., a Clinton supporter, said on CNN that the focus on Lake County was "a shame."
Obama won Lake County, 56% to 43%, according to final results that weren't released until after 5 a.m. Wednesday -- not enough to affect Clinton's narrow win. But politicians acknowledged that the county's historically slow tallying looked worse under the national media spotlight.
"They didn't do anything against the law that we could find, but it certainly and unnecessarily raised the suspicion of voters and taxpayers in not only Lake County but the entire nation," said Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican whose office oversees elections. "The county has had a history of voting irregularity and voting fraud, which should cause Lake County to . . . act more upright than they would have to."
County election officials adamantly denied any wrongdoing and defended their practices, even while acknowledging that they would reexamine them. Any allegation of misconduct "offends us, in some respects, because we do a really good job; we follow the rules. The accuracy of the vote is of utmost importance to us," said Michelle Fajman, Lake County's elections supervisor.
Rokita criticized Lake County election officials for the way they counted absentee ballots as well as their decision not to report vote totals as they were tabulated, saying those decisions combined to delay the results and raise concerns.
The county could have avoided a logjam by using the "small army" of election workers at precincts to count the absentee ballots rather than gathering them at a central location before tallying, Rokita said.
County officials acknowledged that they were slowed by the need to hand-count many of the nearly 11,300 absentee ballots -- far more than the 4,053 they had in 2004 and the 2,822 in 2000. At about 8:30 p.m., more than two hours after the polls had closed, election workers put the counting of absentee ballots on hold to switch their attention to the bulk of votes cast earlier that day in the county's 561 precincts.
Compounding the slow count was officials' decision not to release vote totals as soon as they were tabulated and to hand out the results on paper rather than immediately post them on the county website. Fajman said county officials waited to release the totals because they wanted to present as complete a picture as possible.
When Gary Mayor Rudy Clay bragged to reporters about a large turnout for Obama in his city, McDermott, the Hammond mayor, questioned why the results were so slow. Others were quick to point to the county's infamous electoral history.
For more than two decades, voting problems have been common in Lake County elections, often followed by criminal investigations and calls for reform in the Legislature. After controversial 2003 elections in East Chicago and Schererville, a state grand jury investigation led to more than 40 convictions.
On Wednesday, Clay said it was "hogwash" to suggest that officials were doing anything to sway the state in favor of Obama, even if the county is just over the state line from the senator's stomping grounds. He said the election problems were a result of county officials following out-of-date procedures not designed to handle the hordes of excited voters.
"We did it the old-fashioned way, and it didn't work because of the overwhelming amount of people," Clay said. "We all have to sit down and come up with some ideas so this won't happen again."