Sorting Out Hamilton County's Election Day Mess May Take Time
Tuesday, over 198,000 Hamilton County voters checked in at their polling places and were processed with the brand-new electronic poll books and had absolutely no problems whatsoever.
They checked in; they voted; they went home with a “I voted” sticker for their lapels and shirt pockets.
But for a relative handful of voters – no one is quite sure yet how many, but board of elections officials call it a “significant number” – the new system caused a major headache and that ended up with several thousand more voters than usual casting provisional ballots; and, perhaps, disenfranchised some – probably because they got fed up with waiting and left the polling places.
The debut of “e-polling” – the use of electronic poll books – was a pretty good example of Murphy’s Law in action – Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
The board of elections had paid a company named Tenex $1.4 million for the e-polling system – money the board had been squirreling away for a number of years in anticipation of switching from paper poll books to electronic ones.
Some of the problems were clearly due to poll workers not following the training they were given; other problems were technical glitches with the e-poll system itself.
Poll workers in some polling precincts were throwing up their hands in frustration when voters names weren’t showing up in the electronic poll book after the voters’ IDs were scanned.
And so they resorted in many cases to handing the voter a provisional ballot, which is not counted until at least 10 days after the election.
In fact, 5.4 percent of Hamilton County voted by provisional ballot Tuesday, a higher percentage than any county in the state. That’s 11,547 of them, to be exact. Usually in Hamilton County, two to four percent of the ballots cast are provisional.
Every last one of them will be counted, assuming they were all filled out by registered voters, but, still, this is not the way the process is supposed to work.
“There were significant technical problems with the system,’’ said Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections and also the county Democratic Party chairman. “We don’t fully know the extent of them yet. That’s what we have to get to the bottom of. And we are going to get to the bottom of this.”
Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted sent a letter to the Hamilton County board telling them to report back to him by Dec. 11 on their investigation. Burke said the board should be able to make that deadline.
There really is no choice but to figure out what went wrong in Hamilton County Tuesday night, with many voters’ names not showing up in the electronic poll books and the passing out of way-too-many provisional ballot. There are even reports, Burke said, that some people were turned away at the polls, “which should never happen.”
Former State Sen. Eric Kearney, a backer of Issue 3, the marijuana legalization constitutional amendment that went down to defeat Tuesday, went to the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court late Tuesday afternoon and asked Judge Robert Ruehlmann to extend voting hours past the 7:30 p.m. deadline. Ruehlmann, saying he wanted to make sure no one had been disenfranchised, ordered the polls to stay open until 9 p.m., which threw the whole state into a tizzy.
During that extra 90 minutes, 1,090 voters cast ballots in Hamilton County.
There is no choice but to prevent a mess like Tuesday next year because 2016 is a presidential election year – with a primary in March that could make a difference in who the party nominees are and a November election in which Hamilton County could well be the focal point in a state that will be more closely watched by the national news media than any other.
Election officials here have to get it right. And they know that.
The Hamilton County Board of Elections – made up of two Democratic members and two Republican members – has had its share of partisan spats over the years, but, generally speaking, they are a more collegial group than the boards in other major urban counties.
That goes, too, for the staff of the board, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
So, it was not altogether surprising that, on Thursday afternoon, Burke and board member Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, issued a joint statement that was both an apology to the voters and a promise to fix what went wrong.
They said they will hold a special meeting Tuesday morning to begin the process of figuring out what happened. That meeting will just be the beginning – it will likely take quite some time to sort this out.
“As the chairs of opposing political parties, we are going to disagree on many issues of public policy, but we both believe strongly in the democratic process and the right of people to vote and have their votes accurately counted,’’ they wrote.
Burke told WVXU about some of the problems that were encountered. Some were technical; some were because poll workers didn’t follow training.
In e-polling, the voter’s ID card is scanned and, if he or she is registered, the poll worker can see that the voter is qualified to vote.
Burke said there was a Wi-Fi connection between the scanner and a printer, which printed out a paper saying which ballot the voter should get. But, Burke said, it was apparent that in many polling places, the Wi-Fi connection wasn’t working.
“But even if it wasn’t working, they could just look at the screen; the information was right there,’’ Burke said.
Some people who were registered to vote weren’t showing up in the scan because the vendor used the voter registration deadline for the August special election – not the November general election.
Each and every polling place, Burke said, had a back-up to the e-polling – the old paper book listing all the registered voters.
“But for some reason – and I don’t know why – they were sent out to the polling places sealed with a sticker that said ‘do not open,’’’ Burke said. “Some of the polling places called the board of elections and the staff said, yes, open them. But that should never have happened.”
Poll workers in some polling places “panicked,” Burke said, and went to the third option – voting by provisional ballot.
“Provisional ballots are the fail-safe system,’’ Burke said. “Some people think provisional ballots are bad – they’re not; they are good. They are checked by the board and if they are cast by registered voters, they are counted.”
On an ordinary election day, Burke said, the board has about 25 “troubleshooters” to go out to polling places to deal with problems. Tuesday, they had about twice that many because of the new system being in place.
Triantafilou said the board knew there would be some problems, but never dreamed they would be to the extent that they were.
“It’s a debacle; it’s a mess,’’ Triantafilou said. “It just undermines the integrity of the process in the minds of the voters. We can’t have this.”
Triantafilou said he believes the problems Hamilton County encountered Tuesday can be fixed; and he knows that dozens of other counties have been using e-polling for some time now and have worked out any bugs.
But, if not, he doesn’t want to take the chance of going into a presidential election year with an unreliable system.
“If, three months out, I’m not confident in the integrity of this system, I’ll take the black eye,” Triantafilou said. “I’ll be for a change back to the old paper poll books. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But I feel that strongly about it.”