COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offices in a former Kohl’s department store here look inconsequential enough — linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and cookie-cutter furniture. But what happens in this strip mall, and other equally nondescript settings nationwide, could in fact be crucial to the struggle over America’s voting laws and apparatus — a struggle that may go a long way toward determining the outcome of next November’s presidential election.
The Franklin County Board of Elections moved to the north side of this capital city last year after using the site in 2012 to accommodate the rush of people who cast their ballots during Ohio’s early voting period. But that early voting policy is still not set in stone — its duration and details have been stretched and squeezed repeatedly over the past few years by both state law and court order, part of a bitter clash between Democrats and Republicans over access to the ballot, electoral integrity and resources.
Meanwhile, some 80 miles to the north, in the rolling farmland of Ohio’s Amish Country, the Holmes County Board of Elections is engaged in a separate but related conflict, strategically pinching pennies and holding off purchases of printers and other items in hopes the county can scrounge together a few hundred thousand dollars to replace its aging voting machines.
From Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo to Dayton, the stories are similar. Most of the Buckeye State’s 88 counties share these election-related dilemmas, and that’s critically important, since no presidential candidate has won the nation without winning Ohio since 1960. After a thin margin of error and widespread dysfunction at the polls tarnished election results here in 2004, state lawmakers enacted a series of reforms. But over the past few years, Republicans have been chipping away at many of those changes. GOP leaders say they’re simply trying to guarantee uniformity and prevent voter fraud, but voting rights advocacy groups say the recent changes threaten to bring back problems from the past, and may really be driven by an effort to suppress voter turnout.
Meanwhile, Ohio leaders are largely ignoring what a bipartisan federal panel called an “impending crisis”: voting equipment that’s at least a decade old and in need of replacement.
And Ohio is far from alone. Politicians and advocates are waging similar battles across the country, where state legislatures continue to fight over the rules — voting hours and required identification — and argue over money to replace broken down voting equipment.
But the stakes may be highest here, in perhaps the most important of swing states on the national electoral map. With voting laws in flux and funding a constant struggle nationwide, two central questions remain just 14 months before Election Day: who will be able to vote, and will all their votes be counted accurately?
Reforms and persistent problems
Today’s fights over the nation’s electoral rules and the sorry state of its voting infrastructure both trace back to November of 2000, when an unusually close race between George W. Bush and Al Gore led to a contested recount in Florida and the indelible image of bug-eyed election officials peering at “hanging chads.”
More than ever, the two parties began to see the opportunity to nudge electoral laws in their favor. “We’re in a highly partisan atmosphere now so that leads to more fights and litigation,” said Richard L. Hasen, an expert in election law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Hasen said that partisanship, along with a trend since 2000 toward closer presidential elections and a couple of key Supreme Court decisions on voting law, has led to more fights between the parties over arcane rules and “an increased churn and question of how far these voting changes can go.”
The 2000 election also exposed the need to modernize voting infrastructure. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 made a number of changes to the nation’s voting system; chief among them was creation of the federal Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, which was charged with setting voluntary standards for new voting machines to replace the punch-card systems, ostensibly heading off another “hanging chad” disaster.
In 2004, though, problems emerged again, this time in Ohio, where a combination of robust turnout and poor planning and administration led to long lines at polls. Some people in Knox County, near Kenyon College, waited as many as 10 hours to vote. The margin of victory was less than 120,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast, but despite widespread concerns among Democrats that the lines and other problems had sullied the vote, John Kerry conceded the state to Bush the day after the election (he later supported a recount, which confirmed Bush’s win).
In the ensuing years, the ills of the nation’s voting system drew increasing scrutiny from the political parties, advocacy groups and academics, with the clearest symptom of those ills being lines at the polls. While most people do not wait long to vote, lines have persisted in some locales, leading to the loss of some 500,000 to 700,000 votes in 2012, according to an analysis by Charles Stewart III, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Ansolabehere, of Harvard University. Voters in Florida waited an average of about 40 minutes that year, the longest in the nation.
Those lines prompted Barack Obama in 2013 to appoint the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which held a series of hearings and pulled together relevant research to create a list of best practices. The commission noted that many issues — a dearth of data, uneven resource allocation, poorly maintained registration rolls — were rooted in the system’s decentralization, and the panel published a lengthy list of recommendations, including allowing people to register to vote online and expanding early voting opportunities. But perhaps nothing the commission said was more unsettling than the “impending crisis” it identified with the nation’s aging voting infrastructure.
A troubling state of affairs
Halfway between Columbus and Cleveland, the Holmes County Board of Elections occupies a windowless room with high ceilings in a one-story building it shares with other county offices in Millersburg, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. The county seat, with some 3,000 residents, has a compact downtown of mostly red-brick buildings, some old and bright and some, like the elections building, made of newer, duller bricks that don’t quite fit in.
On a bright June morning the room served as staging ground for a public voting machine test, which counties must perform ahead of each election. No one showed up to watch, but at 10 a.m., part-time staffer Betsy Hall began setting up an AccuVote TSX, the county’s electronic voting machine. Its plastic casing was slightly battered but intact and held the touch-screen device itself, which looks like an oversized and outdated children’s toy. As Hall labored with the contraption, Elections Director Lisa Welch emerged from a back room holding a hammer and a white rubber mallet — her favorite office tools, she said with a smile.
Election administration requires a rare combination of skills: facility with ever-changing legal statutes, an ability to calm the nerves of tense and confused voters, knowledge of the various IT systems that support registration databases and equipment, management of a large team of usually elderly and often poorly-trained poll workers, and patience for a healthy dose of mind-numbing clerical work. In Holmes County, those tasks fall to Welch, her deputy director and two part-time staff members. Welch likes to say she’s a mechanic as much as anything, however, for all the time she puts in keeping the aging machines running.
With a short bob and plastic-rimmed glasses, Welch has a dry but cheery sense of humor. In her spare time, she helps her husband run a pair of lure and bait businesses, from which you can buy concoctions with names like Purrfect and Catatonic or a 50-50 mix of red fox and bobcat urine.
The machine test went smoothly. Hall used the touch screen to register four mock votes for an upcoming special election. The device recorded the selections onto a 128-megabyte memory chip the size of a credit card. Welch then walked the chip into a back room that stores the county’s 115-odd machines as well as its central server, which tabulates votes uploaded from the memory cards each election on a 2003 Dell desktop with a defunct floppy disk drive. The computer runs the Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft stopped supporting more than a year ago, making it vulnerable to hacks and viruses.
To date, the county has never had a major problem with the equipment, but Welch has no doubt that it’s quickly deteriorating, and she’s been pushing the county commissioners to replace it. “I’ve been explaining to them: It’s a computer. It’s all computer-based. It’s 10 years old now. We’ve had the system for 10 full years. This is the point where things are going to start going crazy.”
In 2014, a review by Virginia’s Department of Elections of that state’s equipment, which includes the AccuVote, found that over time, a coating in the machine’s touch screen degrades a glue that holds the screen’s layers together, causing calibration errors that can prompt voters to select the wrong candidate. Welch said this problem has forced her to send a handful of the devices back to Election Systems & Software, which in 2009 purchased the original manufacturer, a subsidiary of Diebold. AccuVote is the most commonly used machine in Ohio, according to a survey conducted by the Ohio Association of Election Officials, with at least 33 counties deploying them each election.
All but four of Ohio’s 88 counties are using machines bought in 2006 or earlier, and according to the association survey, only 14 counties have a plan to replace them. The stakes are especially high in Franklin County, where 4,700 iVotronic touch-screen machines sit in a hangar-like space in the back of that sprawling office on the north side of Columbus. Those machines, which were first used in 2006, serve some 800,000 voters and are aging fast, but there is no plan to replace them, said William A. Anthony Jr., the county’s elections director.
A Center for Public Integrity review of Franklin County records showed that poll workers reported at least 105 incidents with voting equipment on Election Day 2014, though some of those incidents involved multiple machines. Anthony dismissed those as mostly minor problems. Still, he says he’s constantly appealing to state and federal officials, telling “anyone who will listen” about the need to replace the machines. The county does not have the money, he said, and there’s been no indication of state or federal assistance.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted sounded the alarm two years ago in testimony to Obama’s bipartisan commission. “The next time we go to the polls to elect a president, these machines will be 12 years old,” he said. “That’s a lifetime when it comes to technology.” The commission determined that “a large share of the nation’s voting machines … will reach the end of their natural life and require replacement” by the end of this decade.
But despite these broad concerns, the state does not collect data on the condition of Ohio’s machines writ large, and has no plan to purchase new ones.
Out of date, out of mind
This “impending crisis” regarding voting equipment has its roots in the solution to a previous problem. The 2002 Help America Vote Act provided more than $3 billion to help states purchase new equipment, and the majority of local jurisdictions bought replacements over the next few years — mostly either touch-screen devices like in Holmes County or optical scan machines that record votes from a paper ballot. The result is that, with rare exceptions, the country’s voting machines are all aging out at the same time.
“If I had a computer that was that old, I would be really concerned about it,” said Thomas Hicks, vice-chair of the Election Assistance Commission. “That equipment is at the end of its lifecycle and it needs to be replaced,” but the federal government is unlikely to provide funding to the states. “There’s a crisis in funding it, because there’s no money available, and there’s a crisis in replacing it, because it’s so old and antiquated.”
The Election Assistance Commission has had its own problems. Before Hicks and two other commissioners were confirmed by the Senate in December, a deadlocked Congress had refused since 2011 to fill the vacant commissioner slots, leaving the body without a quorum and unable to approve new guidelines for machines. As it happened, the older guidelines in some cases precluded machines from incorporating new technologies, such as tablets, Hicks said. And while the EAC guidelines are voluntary, nearly every state requires that machines meet at least some aspect of them, so the delay effectively stalled the market because manufacturers had little incentive to develop new equipment. “These standards that we’re using now were written before the iPhone,” Hicks said.
This year, the EAC finally approved a set of guidelines that had been in the works all those years, and Hicks said commissioners are now planning to write new standards that will account for advancements like tablets.
States are responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own equipment, and in many cases they delegate the task to the nation’s 8,000 local jurisdictions. While there’s no good data on machine failures, incidents have been popping up all over the country. On Election Day 2014, for example, voting machines in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, started crashing and became inoperable. The state Department of Elections ordered a review that found the machines were highly vulnerable to attacks that could alter vote tallies without detection. The review determined that a hacker could access the machine, called a WinVote, using a USB port or a wireless device (the Wi-Fi password was “abcde”). The machines’ software, a version of Windows from 2002, was easy to hack, as was its database, which was protected by a password that the reviewers cracked in 10 seconds. The Election Day problems, however, appeared to have originated when a poll worker used a smartphone to stream music through the Wi-Fi of the library where voting was taking place. The report prompted the state to de-certify the machines immediately — Virginia was the only state still using them — forcing 30 localities to scramble to find replacements.
In December, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had proposed spending $28 million on new voting equipment, but the legislature stripped the funding from the budget this year, two months before the WinVote report was published. Despite the lack of funding, all 30 jurisdictions are replacing their equipment, said Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, either by purchasing or leasing new systems or, in a couple of cases, receiving used machines from other localities.
Some states have upgraded their machines in recent years, including New Mexico and Maryland. But they are the exception to the rule. This year, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill authorizing $30 million to buy new machines but then failed to actually provide the money. Secretary of State Mark Martin had been pushing to replace the state’s voting equipment, going so far as to choose a vendor. But the legislature’s failure to act forced Martin to scale back the initial plan to a $2.5 million pilot project in four counties.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which works to expand access to voting and has been canvassing state officials for an upcoming report about voting equipment, found that while a “substantial majority” of states plan to replace their equipment within five years, officials in most of those states said they do not know where they’ll get the cash. “These aren’t small amounts of money,” Lawrence Norden, who is leading the Brennan Center’s work, told the Center for Public Integrity by email. “Given the numbers of machines that need to be replaced, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Officials and experts say the machine failures are unlikely to cause massive problems in 2016, but smaller issues can add up, leading to long lines and undermining voters’ confidence in the system.
“Election officials are doing their best to make sure that equipment functions in the way that it was designed to for 2016 and 2018,” Hicks said. “But we run the risk, as we continue to delay the replacement of this equipment, for something catastrophic to happen.”
Back in Millersburg, Welch said her county has been able to avoid catastrophe so far, in part because of her sometimes-unorthodox efforts to maintain the equipment on a shoestring budget. Back in the storage closet, after she had finished verifying the test results, Welch picked off the shelf a white plastic contraption that resembles an oversized cash register printer. The device attaches to the AccuVote and creates a paper trail of the votes, a step Ohio requires for all touch-screen machines. She pointed to a shiny steel bolt that was holding the printer’s casing together, a jury-rigged fix she devised to save money after the original part broke. “I went to the hardware store and spent maybe 35 cents and used a drill,” she said. “You’ve got to like power tools with this job.”
From Selma to Cleveland
While Ohio’s aging voting machines get comparatively little attention, there’s no shortage of focus on the laws and rules that end up deciding who votes, and under what conditions. It’s easy for the seemingly endless debates over these rules — which cover absentee voting, provisional ballots, registration guidelines and other minutiae — to get lost in a bureaucratic haze. But for Rev. Tony Minor, in what’s becoming a common refrain across the country, there’s a straight line from Selma in 1965 to the present.
Minor grew up in Cleveland’s gritty Glenville neighborhood, a hotbed of activism and violence in the 1960s. In 1968, a shootout between black nationalists and the police left seven people dead and led to days of looting. That came two years after riots in neighboring Hough. A decade later, Minor left Cleveland to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. had earned a degree. He began working on civil rights issues and took part in the Overground Railroad, a voter registration campaign in the mid ’80s led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He’s now a pastor and the advocacy director at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, a Cleveland social service group. But he’s also Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, where he works on voter education and registration drives with leaders of the state’s black churches.
“I’m doing this because of people like Amelia Boynton in Selma, Alabama and those individuals who crossed that bridge, and all Americans, black or white, in the North or South who really gave their lives so that people can have access to the polls,” Minor said. “That’s what this is about.”
Minor, who has neatly trimmed, graying black hair and an unflinching stare, speaks softly but passionately. He was sitting in the Superior Avenue offices of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, a sleek one-story glass building surrounded by auto-body shops and vacant factories in Cleveland’s Goodrich-Kirtland Park district, east of downtown.
Minor’s church serves a down-and-out community, he said, “where inspiring low-income, struggling families to trust the voting process and to utilize the voting process is a continued challenge.” The riots of his youth haven’t returned, but the racial tension has, after a white city police officer, responding to a 911 call last year, shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy who was carrying a BB gun.
Today’s fights over laws like early voting trace back to 2004 in Ohio, when most of the longest lines at the polls were in urban areas like Cleveland and Columbus, which tend to have robust minority populations and are heavily Democratic. At the time, Democrats accused then-Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a black Republican, of suppressing the vote after he ruled that so-called provisional ballots would count only if voters cast them in the correct precinct, a decision later upheld by a court. (Poll workers provide these provisional ballots to voters whose eligibility is in doubt, and officials count them only if they can later verify that the voter was indeed eligible. But while federal law requires states to offer provisional ballots, states have some discretion in setting the conditions under which they’re counted.) In addition, a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters in 2005 alleged that a shortage of voting machines in certain areas disenfranchised tens of thousands of Ohioans. “It put the black community on notice,” Minor said of the election.
Under a national microscope, the state legislature in 2005 approved early voting during a period of 35 days, including one week when people could register and vote at the same time, and opened absentee voting to anyone who requested a ballot. Those two measures became extremely popular — 1.8 million Ohioans voted early or by mail in 2012, casting about a third of all ballots — and are considered the primary reason long lines have not returned. In 2009, the state settled the League of Women Voters lawsuit and agreed to institute a series of reforms, including requiring counties to produce pre-election planning documents and to allocate voting machines based on the number of registered voters (poor machine allocation was a key driver of Franklin County’s five-hour waits).
But rather than settling the issue, these measures kicked off an intense back-and-forth battle over the laws that shows no signs of ending. In 2011, the Republican-led Legislature began trying to roll back many of these reforms by passing a sweeping elections law that would have cut early voting in half. Voting rights advocates responded with a campaign to repeal the bill through a referendum. When it looked like they might succeed, lawmakers decided to beat them to it by passing a bill in 2012 that itself repealed the law.
Since then, however, the Legislature has continued to pass smaller-bore adjustments. In 2014, lawmakers eliminated one week of early voting during which people could register and vote at the same time, bringing the period down to 28 days. The same month, Secretary of State Husted (Blackwell, who did not respond to an interview request, left office in 2007 after a failed bid for governor) set uniform statewide hours for voting during the shorter period, barring county election boards from opening during some weekends and evenings. Previously, counties could set their own hours for early voting during the 35-day window, and larger counties like Franklin and Cuyahoga, which includes Cleveland, stayed open during these extended hours.
The NAACP filed suit in May 2014, and just this past April reached a settlement with the state that reinstates some of the weekend and evening hours but maintains the 28-day period, without the week allowing people to register and vote on the same day. Several other bills have tweaked rules on absentee and provisional ballots — shortening the period voters have to correct them, for example, and requiring they provide their address, date of birth and driver’s license number or partial social security number on the ballot envelopes. Advocates say these changes increase the likelihood of technical errors that can lead to ballots being rejected.
Voting rights proponents see early in-person voting as critically important to black voters, many of whom work multiple, inflexible jobs and live in single-parent homes, all of which makes it more difficult to wait in lines during business hours on Election Day. A broad body of evidence suggests that blacks are more likely than whites to vote early, both in Ohio and nationally. One study at Cleveland State University found that, in 2008, African-Americans comprised about 56 percent of early voters in Cuyahoga County, but just 26 percent of all other types of voters (one of the authors is also a member of a local voting rights advocacy group). A 2014 study by the liberal Center for American Progress also suggests that blacks may be more likely to cast provisional ballots in Ohio and 15 other states. All of this has made arguments about early voting and tinkering with provisional ballot rules not simply partisan, but racially charged as well.
Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Secretary of State Husted, declined the Center’s request to interview the secretary. But Husted has defended the changes publicly, saying they have brought uniformity to the state’s voting rules and have actually expanded access in counties that previously offered no after-hours voting. “You can vote for a month, you don’t have to leave your house,” Eck said. “Ohio is still leaps and bounds above most states.”
Some 33 states plus Washington, D.C., offer early voting periods, and Ohio’s is indeed longer than most, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But officials in more populous counties say the rules have tied their hands and have the effect of reducing access for the people who most need it.
“The problem we have is that when they try to stick uniformity into the formula, they tend to restrict things,” said Pat McDonald, elections director for Cuyahoga County and a Republican. “Don’t take it away from us; give it to the other counties. Make it more accessible. Make it easier for the voters.”
State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican who has sponsored or co-sponsored many of the election bills, said the state overreacted after 2004, “and we’ve been trying to ratchet that back ever since.” He said the changes to provisional ballots were necessary to help protect against potential fraud, and that a shorter early voting period and limits on absentee mailings are common sense constraints on spending that bring Ohio more in line with other states. “These things are not free.”
The same debates have played out across the country. Since 2010, 21 states have passed laws that the Brennan Center qualifies as “restrictive,” such as cuts to early voting or strict voter ID laws, which generally require voters to present any of a list of approved photo IDs, such as a driver’s license or passport (Ohio requires voters to present identification, but allows for a broad range of documents, including utility bills). In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required some states with a history of racial discrimination, including North Carolina and Texas, to obtain approval from the Justice Department for changes to election law.
Within hours of that court decision, Texas’ then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is now governor, moved to instate a voter identification law that the Justice Department had blocked the previous year (many studies have shown that minorities are less likely to have driver’s licenses or other identification that Texas and some other states require at the polls, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office). Weeks later, North Carolina approved sweeping changes to its voting laws that included voter ID, limits to early voting and ending same-day registration and voting.
In June, North Carolina loosened its voter identification law to allow people to cast provisional ballots if they fail to show a photo ID but claim they were unable to obtain one due to any of a set list of reasons. But the rest of law is subject to a legal challenge, with a federal judge currently considering the case. In August, a federal appellate panel ruled that Texas’s ID law has discriminatory effect, and ordered a lower court to try to adjust the law.
Conservative groups have claimed that many of these changes help protect against voter fraud, and that there’s no evidence they suppress voter turnout. But the primary type of fraud that would be prevented by an ID law — voter impersonation — is extremely rare, even according to a list of cases collected by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports ID laws. The lack evidence has prompted Democrats and voting rights advocates to allege that the true intent of the laws is to suppress the minority vote (there have been more documented cases of absentee ballot fraud).
The rules covering provisional ballots remain particularly confounding. In theory, the ballots provide people who might have been turned away at the polls an opportunity to vote. But, as a 2009 report commissioned by Ohio’s then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, put it, they can also serve as a “trap door to disenfranchisement” because in many cases, those ballots are not ultimately counted.
Ohio had one of the highest rates of provisional votes cast in the last presidential election, when they comprised 3.7 percent of all ballots, and also one of the highest rates of rejected provisional ballots, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. While most were rejected because the voter wasn’t registered, officials tossed more than 9,000 because the voter cast the ballot at the wrong polling location, and nearly 3,000 because the voter failed to sign or print their name on the ballot envelope. The 2009 report commissioned by Brunner recommended the state simplify the rules for provisional ballots, but little progress has been made.
Unfortunately, Rev. Minor said, all of this back and forth undermines people’s trust and confuses voters, driving down turnout and making it more difficult to cast a ballot. “There’s a huge distrust and sense of disdain that most people have for the electoral process,” he said. “Our challenge is convincing the public, convincing especially young African-Americans, that voting can be a tool toward justice. And I’m not so sure if they believe that.”
Ohio’s laws may yet change again before the next presidential election. Just weeks after the settlement that established the 28-day early voting compromise in April, a group represented by the general counsel of Hillary Clinton’s campaign filed a federal lawsuit challenging a broad slate of the state’s measures (more recently, that group has sought to withdraw and be replaced by the state Democratic party). In early August, in a separate matter, the Ohio Democratic Party and two groups representing the homeless filed an updated complaint arguing that the 2014 laws on absentee and provisional ballot rules discriminate against minority voters — the latest step in a years-old federal suit that, in 2010, resulted in a consent decree that has helped determine how the state counts provisional ballots.
The Clinton attorney has also filed suit in Wisconsin and Virginia, meaning that in several swing states, voting rules may not be settled until soon before the election. Rulings in any of those cases, or in North Carolina or other states, could also prompt a new wave of states trying to change their own laws, said Hasen, the election law expert.
“What you’re going to see is continued litigation, continued experimentation with the kinds of changes that we’ve seen in some places like North Carolina,” Hasen said. The chief cause, he said, is simple: Both parties have determined that making it easier to vote benefits Democrats.
Even if the Clinton lawyer’s case in Ohio is dismissed or unsuccessful, the state’s early voting laws may change again soon anyway. The April settlement on early voting expires after 2018.
The same uncertainty hangs over what types of machines voters will use in 2016 and beyond, said Norden, of the Brennan Center. There’s a “stalemate now between different branches and levels of government as to who’s responsible for paying for this,” he said.
Good enough is not good enough
Despite all the partisanship, litigation and finger-pointing, both the Buckeye State and the nation have made significant progress over the past decade. At least 28 states have adopted online voter registration, most over the past five years, which advocates say expands access to voting while reducing clerical errors that cause nightmares each Election Day. In late June, Husted, the secretary of state, touted many of these advances before a somber crowd of several hundred of Ohio’s election officials who had gathered for their summer conference in the Archie M. Griffin Grand Ballroom, a soaring space with rectangular, dangling glass-bead chandeliers, on the Ohio State campus.
The one-day event serves as a continuing education seminar for election officials. Husted opened the day with a pep-talk during which he repeated favorite catch-phrases such as how the state is making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat,” and stressing that “good enough is not good enough.” Many officials and advocates say Husted appears sincere in his efforts to improve the administration of elections. He has supported key measures pushed by advocates, including online registration, which the state Senate passed in June, and state funding for electronic pollbooks — which replace paper voter rolls and promise to streamline voter check-in and cut down on poll worker error — for which the Legislature approved funding this year.
But conspicuously absent from his speech was any talk of money for voting machines. In an effort to reduce spending, county election boards eliminated more than 700 voting precincts from 2010 to 2013 in Ohio, a seven percent cut. The state sets a maximum number of voters per precinct, and sometimes the consolidations have few if any negative effects. But in several instances they’ve caused problems.
Summit County cut more than a third of its 475 precincts before the 2012 election. When voters went to the polls in Akron that year, some waited more than two hours when locations didn’t have enough voting booths to accommodate demand, and the county reversed many of the cuts the next year.
Even the state funding for electronic pollbooks — $12.8 million — has been framed as much in terms of cutting costs as anything else. Counties will no longer have to pay to print extensive paper lists for each polling location and will be able to save time and money due to the comparative ease of updating digital records.
Welch was unable to attend the conference — she and her husband had traveled to Indiana for the annual convention of the Fur Takers of America — but days earlier, in her office, she had said she was optimistic her county would approve money for new machines, perhaps within the year. They may only be able to afford them, however, by eliminating more than half of the county’s 17 precincts.
Welch’s desk is decorated with an earthen jar stuffed with dozens of ballpoint pens, a Ziplock bag filled with Band-Aids and an American-flag mug sitting next to an American-flag mouse pad. Her computer desktop had an image of a grazing horse with a quote: “Look for something positive in each day, even if you have to look a little harder. Let the challenge make you stronger.”
Inside the desk, she keeps an old analogue cassette tape deck that she uses to record the election board’s meetings, as required by the state. The last time someone requested a recording, she said, she pressed play on the tape deck and held it up to her computer’s microphone so she could create a digital file to send. The office needs a color printer — some ballots require red ink, and Welch is forced to print them at home or next door at the treasurer’s office. She’d like a variable speed drill, too, the better to make her repairs with. But she’s asked for none of these things, she said, as she holds out for new voting machines. “I’m trying,” she said, “to be good.”
This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.
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