Elections can be messy things.
And, by elections, we don’t mean campaigns – those are worse than messy; they are legalized madness. What we mean is the actual organizing of an election, the running of polling places and the process of counting the votes.
Local boards of elections, for the most part, do a superb job of pulling them off.
But we have been covering politics and elections for over 40 years; and can’t remember a single one where something didn’t go wrong on Election Day – either by human error or technology failure or both.
On Nov. 5, in Hamilton County, a whole lot of things went wrong when the Hamilton County Board of Elections became the largest county in Ohio to adopt the use of electronic poll books.
While the vast majority of Hamilton County voters – about 198,000 people – went to their polling places and voted with no problems whatsoever, that was not the case for several thousand others, who encountered problems of poll workers who did not seem to be well-trained on the new “e-poll” system and the failure of the technology that the county had paid a software company named Tenex $1.4 million to provide.
Here’s some numbers on the problem:
- 84 percent of the county’s polling precincts had some kind of e-poll large or small, although the majority of those problems were resolved by the board’s “Help Desk” and the 50 members of the roving “Troubleshooting” staff.
- 65 percent of the polling places had Wi-Fi problems where the tablets that scanned voters’ IDs didn’t connect to the printers that spit out labels so voters could be given the correct ballots.
- Poll workers at nearly 35 percent of the polling places had trouble setting up the equipment for e-polling.
- And 43 percent of the polling places had trouble locating voters in the e-poll system.
Part of that problem was the fault of a software error caused by Tenex. The software company’s president told board of elections last month it had used the wrong cut-off date for voter registration, which mean that 2,764 voters didn’t show up in in the system.
And, in many polling places, poll workers were apparently not aware that the bound package that came in their election day supplies was a back-up that could have solved a lot of the problems – one of the old-fashioned paper poll books.
If a voter didn’t show up in the e-poll scan, the poll workers could have simply checked the old paper books. In many cases, they did not.
Almost all of those voters who got caught up in the Election Day problems of e-polling ended up casting provisional ballots, all of which were counted a couple of weeks after the election when the final results were certified.
But it was enough of a big honking mess that Ohio’s chief elections officer, Secretary of State Jon Husted, told the board of elections to investigate the problems and submit a report on what the board intends to do to prevent such foul-ups in the future.
Husted received that report from the board Friday.
“Every election, large or small, carries with it unique challenges,” the report said. “Those challenges can be magnified when introducing new technology and processes. That was certainly the case in the November 2015 general election.”
The problems encountered “by far too many voters are simply unacceptable,’’ the report said.
The report, with its detailed description of what happened and its specific proposals for solving the Election Day problems, was signed by all four board of elections members – two Democrats and two Republicans.
This was not, by any means, a partisan issue.
Both sides agree they must do better.
“There will always be something that goes wrong in elections,’’ said board chairman Tim Burke, who is also chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “We’re dealing with thousands of people. We’re dealing with technology, which sometimes doesn’t work.”
But the examination and report to Husted, Burke said, “was a helpful exercise for us to do it as quickly as it was done."
Board of elections member Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said poll worker training is going to be a big part of the solution.
“We’re going to have to do better with that,’’ Triantafilou said.
The board members and staff told Husted they want to bring in a “professional expert in adult education” to review the board’s training curriculum for poll workers. And they want poll workers to have to pass a test at the end of their training.
Another solution offered by the board involved high school seniors.
The report said they want to expand the current “Youth at the Booth” program which employs high school seniors at the polling places. The board hired 125 high school students this year. By November’s presidential election, they want to recruit 364 high school seniors, which will “allow us to place one high school senior in every polling location.”
“These young people are much more comfortable with the technology than a lot of our regular poll workers,’’ Burke said. “They know their way around technology a lot better than we do.”
It’s a fact. This county is full of high school seniors with the smarts to keep the “grown-ups” out of this kind of mess in the future.
Husted told WVXU he took an initial look at the 15-page report Friday and liked what he saw.
"They deserve credit for a transparent and honest report with a plan to fix the problems,'' Husted said. "I give them a lot of credit for being honest about the problems. Now it is up to them to implement the solutions."
There’s no question about it – the problems Hamilton County had on Nov. 5 have to be fixed; and the board has come up with a clear roadmap as to how to do that.
It’s incredibly important – on March 15, Ohio will hold its presidential primary; and in November, more than 70 percent of the electorate can be expected to come out to vote for the next president.
Ohio will once again be a key swing state. Hamilton County will be a key swing county in this state. The eyes of the nation will be upon us.
And the board is doing its best to fix the problems. That is not to say the next election will be as smooth as silk.
“You worry about the increased scrutiny we will be under,’’ Triantafilou said. “Every cycle you will have a polling place open late because somebody forgot the keys. There is no such thing as a perfect election.
“But these things we saw this year,’’ Triantafilou said, “should never repeat themselves. They just can’t.”