CINCINNATI — The votes still were being counted late Tuesday at Hamilton County’s board of elections when officials there began to talk about next year.
It was not a pleasant conversation.
The delays, mistakes and technological glitches that plagued Tuesday’s vote caused headaches for everyone involved in the process. But election officials know that’s nothing compared to the epic migraine they’d get if those errors are repeated next fall, during a presidential election that could hinge on Ohio and Hamilton County.
If an election featuring a few statewide issues and local tax levies could bring so much pain, it wasn’t hard for the people in charge of elections here to imagine what would happen if the stakes were higher. Armies of lawyers and political operatives would roll into town. Wolf Blitzer might go live from Fountain Square. It might not be Florida’s hanging chads, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
“We’re in a crucial state in a presidential election year and we’ve got to get it right,” said Alex Triantafilou, a board of elections member and the chairman of the county GOP.
“There’s no sugarcoating it,” he said of Tuesday’s vote. “Last night was a disaster, and we need to fix it.”
The postmortems began in earnest Wednesday morning. Most focused on the new electronic voter sign-in system that caused confusion at some polling places, and on the training poll workers received before using the new equipment.
Secretary of State Jon Husted demanded an explanation of what went wrong. Hamilton County commissioners talked about setting up an independent, bipartisan group to review the election. State lawmakers called for public hearings on the matter. And the board of elections launched its own investigation into the performance of its poll workers and equipment.
“This is Hamilton County’s problem to solve and to fix,” said Commissioner Todd Portune. “Hamilton County will be a battleground — if not the battleground — in the presidential election. We don’t want anything to go wrong.”
Avoiding all problems probably is a pipe dream, as anyone who has run an election knows. Something, somewhere, almost always goes at least a little bit wrong, whether it’s confusion over a voter’s change of address or a new piece of technology that doesn’t work as expected.
Still, the problems that occurred Tuesday were serious enough to generate a lawsuit and numerous complaints from voters to the board of elections and to media outlets. A final tally of how many people were impacted isn’t known yet, but the number of provisional ballots handed out provides a clue.
Voters are given provisional ballots, which are vetted and counted days after the election, when there is some question about their eligibility to vote. Hamilton County gave out 11,547 of them, more than usual for the county and more than any other county in the state.
About 5.4% of county voters cast provisional ballots Tuesday, compared to 2.5% for the rest of the state. Typically, 2% to 4% of county voters cast provisional ballots.
Sherry Poland, the county’s director of elections, said some poll workers apparently disregarded their training and gave voters provisional ballots if they could not immediately locate their names in the electronic sign-in books by scanning driver’s licenses. She said they were supposed to first do a manual search of the electronic books and then search the old paper sign-in books before resorting to provisional ballots.
“There were some cases where the backup procedures we put in place were not implemented,” said Poland, who described provisional ballots as a “safety net” for poll workers. “Our poll workers do the best job they can, but they got a little overwhelmed and jumped to their safety net.”
More than a few voters were frustrated by the process. Joseph Brotzge said he had to vote provisionally even though he has a valid registration and has been voting at the same Loveland polling place for 30 years.
“It tells me they did poor planning,” he said. “This is not the type of experience one wants to have.”
Poland said many of the problems appeared to be user error, though some were connected to the technology itself. She said some workers struggled to get the electronic books running, which delayed voters at several polling locations, and others found the books would not connect to printers, preventing them from creating the labels that ensure voters get the proper ballot.
Poland said the old paper sign-in books were available at every polling place and at least 10 of the 364 locations resorted to using them because of trouble with the electronic books. Other workers, however, didn’t use the paper books as instructed and instead handed out provisional ballots when voters’ names failed to come up in the electronic registry.
The new technology is supposed to shorten check-in times, from about 2 minutes to 40 seconds, and most Ohio counties now use the system. Hamilton County is the first large county to do so and others are expected to adopt the technology next year, although there is no requirement that they do.
Hamilton County officials launched the system Tuesday, in an off-year election with lower-than-normal voter turnout, in anticipation there would be some kinks to work out. They may have got more than they bargained for, but they haven’t lost faith in the system.
“I have complete confidence we’ll be able to iron these issues out and have a successful election next year,” Poland said. “I still think it’s good technology and we’ll get there.”
The consequences of not getting there were on display all day Tuesday: angry calls from voters, tweets from unhappy public officials, press conferences by activists and politicians, and even an eleventh-hour lawsuit and court hearing that kept the polls open 90 minutes longer than usual.
“The whole state election was held up because of Hamilton County,” said State Rep. Alicia Reece.
A similar performance next year could hold up a much bigger election. County officials will spend the next 12 months trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We need to answer to the rest of the nation that we will not have this problem again,” Portune said.
Contributing: Kevin Grasha, The Cincinnati Enquirer. Follow Dan Horn on Twitter: @danhornnews
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