Why did so much go wrong on Election Day in Athens County?
By Nick Claussen
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
What went wrong, and whose fault is it?
That's the question many Athens County residents are asking after last Tuesday's local election. The election had numerous problems, and thousands of the votes still have not been counted. The complications include the following:
* The main problem was that the high-speed vote-counting machine for absentee votes didn't work as it was supposed to, so the vote count could not be finished until 9 Wednesday morning.
* And while the high-speed machine counted all of the 2,572 absentee ballots, nearly half of those counted were accidentally left out of the final vote tabulation.
* In at least two precincts, the vote-counting machines didn't work for part of Election Day, so voters had to leave their uncounted ballots at the precincts.
* Some of these ballots were placed in the wrong spot, and were missed later during the unofficial count.
* Several precincts had problems with poll workers giving voters incorrect information about new voter-identification laws.
* At least 74 people fed their ballots into the voting machines incorrectly by putting the two ballots sheets in at the same time instead of one at a time. The machines only work when the ballot sheets are ed singly, so the people who ed both sheets simultaneously did not have all of their votes counted.
* As the night went on Tuesday, many people, including news reporters, editors and producers, did not know why the vote count was delayed or when the count would be finished. Many of these people were upset about the information coming from the Athens County Board of Elections.
THE PROBLEM WITH DELAYS of the absentee ballots was caused by several factors, according to Susan Gwinn, chair of the Athens County Board of Elections.
Many counties in Ohio began counting the absentee ballots on Monday, Nov. 6 (the day before Election Day), because a court order said that the absentee count could begin then, said Gwinn, who also chairs the Athens County Democratic Party. The Ohio Secretary of State's Office said, however, that the absentee ballots could not be counted until Election Day, Gwinn said.
Many counties chose to ignore the Secretary of State directive, but Athens County chose to wait until Election Day, Gwinn said.
On Tuesday, the staff originally was going to begin scanning in the absentee votes early in the morning, but the Board of Elections office was filled throughout the day with people casting provisional ballots at the office, according to Gwinn.
"Because of the huge number of provisionals that got voted in the office that day, the staff was pretty swamped," Gwinn said. The staff members also had to take care of several problems at the polling places, she added.
"I have never been to so many polling places to deal with problems," Gwinn said.
The $45,000, high-speed, vote-counting machine for the absentee ballots had been tested, but when the staff finally started counting the absentee ballots Tuesday evening, it didn't work correctly, Gwinn said. The machine never actually broke down, she said, but it did not work as intended. The machine is supposed to be able to take a stack of ballots and count them quickly, she said. That did not work, so the staff members had to hand feed all 2,572 absentee ballots, Gwinn explained.
The voting machines are made by Election Systems and Software (ES&S), and two technicians were called in during the night to see if they could fix the machine, Gwinn said.
One of the technicians was involved in a traffic accident on the way to the Board of Elections office (his vehicle hit a deer), which delayed the work on the machines, according to Gwinn.
At first, it did not seem like the delays with the absentee ballots would cause a problem because the poll workers bringing in results from precincts were arriving slowly anyway, Gwinn said. The poll workers were balancing the books and doing their usual work at the precincts, and the last poll worker did not arrive at the elections office until 10 p.m, she said.
As the night went on, though, the ES&S worker could not fix the high-speed machine, so a second technician was called in. That technician accidentally reset the count on the machine so that fewer than half of the 2,572 absentee ballots did not get included in the unofficial count (see related story), Gwinn said.
The Board of Elections had the option of not counting the absentee ballots at all on Tuesday and saving them for the official count, but because the absentee numbers were so high, they decided include them in the count and delay the results, according to Gwinn.
She added that she consulted with Pete Couladis, chair of the Athens County Republican Party, about the situation.
"He concurred that we try to get them counted that night," Gwinn said.
Members of the news media and area residents were asking about the results, and Gwinn said that Board of Elections members kept them informed.
Tom Hodson, who was covering the election for WATH/WXTQ radio in Athens, said Friday that the Board of Elections staff told WATH/WXTQ News Director Bob Beyette at around 10 p.m. that there was a delay in counting the absentee votes. At 11:40 p.m., Beyette called Gwinn, and she confirmed the problem with the vote-counting machine and said there probably would not be any results until 2 a.m. Wednesday at the earliest.
"At that point, we decided to go off the air at midnight, and then Bob was going to stay around during the night," Hodson said. "He was prepared to do live reports just as soon as the local reports came in."
Other news reporters said that the Board of Elections did not keep the media or the public sufficiently informed about why the votes were delayed or how long it would take to get them counted.
Asked how the Board of Elections could guard against delays in counting absentee votes happening again, Gwinn said that county can make a few changes.
"We are going to just have to be sure that we have the machine operating properly," Gwinn said. "I don't think there's any question that in the future, regardless of what else is happening, that we will begin scanning them in earlier in the day."
AT THE POLLING PLACES, vote-counting machines didn't work at at least two locations.
Cynthia Holliday, who lives on the south side of Athens, said that when she went to vote at the Richland United Methodist Church (the Ward 2 Precinct 3 polling place) on Pomeroy Road Tuesday morning, the vote-counting scanner wasn't working.
"At that point, they were having people put ballots in the space under the scanner," Holliday said. A technician arrived while she was there and tested the machine on her ballot, she recalled.
"It scanned nothing. The machine wasn't working," Holliday said. When she left, she had to leave her ballot in the stack of ballots and hope it would be counted later.
"You walked out of there saying, 'I wonder what's going to happen?'" Holliday said. She was upset that she could not verify that her vote was counted, and she wondered about just leaving her ballot in that slot in the voting machine instead of in some locked box.
In Amesville, poll worker James Lochary said a similar problem occurred at the Ames Township polling precinct where he was working.
At around 2 or 2:30 p.m., the precinct had 12-15 people trying to vote, and the vote-counting machine stopped working, Lochary said.
"They were waiting to be scanned and the damn thing broke down," he said. He added that the Board of Elections never told him or the other staff members what to do if the machine broke.
The poll workers called the Board of Elections to see what to do, he said. The board office was very busy (it took a long time to get the phone answered), but a staff member said they would send a technician out to fix the problem, though the technician was currently at lunch, Lochary said.
"The damn repairman never did show up," he said, adding that the machine didn't work for the rest of the day.
Lochary said that he and the other poll workers were never told that there was a slot on the front of the machine to place the ballots if there were problems, so for a long time they did not know where to put them. They did eventually figure out where to put the ballots, he added.
People who were voting at the precinct were not happy that their votes cold not be counted right away and that they had to be left with poll workers, Lochary recalled.
"They were perplexed and wondered what the hell was going on, and we had to tell them that machine was not functional," Lochary said. The polling precinct was in the Amesville Fire Station, and the village of Amesville also had a polling precinct there. The Amesville vote-counting machine worked fine, but it could not be used for the township voters, Lochary said.
Bill Lavelle, a member of the Athens County Board of Elections, said that some of the ballots from Ames Township were placed in the wrong spot in the voting machines and were not counted right away on Tuesday night. The staff members found the ballots later, and they will be included in the official count, Lavelle said.
Lochary said he does not like the new voting machines and doesn't understand everything about them.
"I'm sure that the machine people ballyhooed the election board saying this is the best things since sliced bread," Lochary said.
One question he had about the ballots, and that some voters had about it, too, was why the stub was needed on the ballot. The poll workers collected the stubs in a special envelope, but Lochary said he did not know what their purpose was.
Gwinn said that the stubs are used for security, to show that no one switched a ballot or did anything else fraudulent.
Lochary said his polling place also had problems when the voting machine was working, with people trying to put both ballot sheets in at the same time, instead of feeding them in singly.
"As far as I'm concerned, you can go back to the punch card," Lochary said. "As far as I'm concerned, you can throw the damn machines out, really."
Gwinn said that another voting precinct also had a problem with the voting machine for handicapped voters.
BLAME FOR THE VOTING problems has been spread around, and on Wednesday Dick Mottl, a member of the Board of Elections, was placing it on the board's choice of voting machines.
Mottl pointed out that he and elections board member Howard Stevens originally supported the Diebold touch-screen voting machines, while board members Gwinn and Lavelle supported the ES&S optical-scan machines. Gwinn and Stevens (the two Democrats on the Board) approved the voting machines in a 2-1 vote during a meeting when Stevens could not be present.
On Friday, Mottl declined to comment further about the voting machines or the problems with Election Day, and referred all comments to Gwinn. Stevens could not be reached for comment.
Athens County resident Steve Jeffers sent a letter to the editor (the full letter is on page 7 of today's Athens NEWS), commenting on the Election Day problems and questioning how much blame should be placed on Gwinn.
If the Democrats blamed Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (a Republican) for the problems in Florida in the 2000 election, and then blamed Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (a Republican) about problems with the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, then it's reasonable that Gwinn should come under scrutiny now, Jeffers said.
"If it was perfectly legitimate to question Katherine Harris and Ken Blackwell's involvement in elections, I believe it is past time to question Susan Gwinn's involvement in this election," Jeffers said.
He pointed out that Gwinn donated money to Patricia Sikorski, the Democratic candidate for Athens County auditor, and chaired her campaign. He also noted that Gwinn pushed for the ES&S machines, which "failed miserably" on Election Day. With so many votes still needing to be counted, Jeffers called on Gwinn to recuse herself from the Board of Elections until the vote count is finalized.
Gwinn said Friday that she is still happy that the Board of Elections ed the ES&S machines, for several reasons.
"Would people rather have paper ballots, or would they rather be voting on computers," Gwinn asked, stressing that Mottl and Stevens wanted to use the Diebold touch-screen machines. Diebold also had an optical-scan machine similar to the ES&S machine chosen by the county, but Gwinn said she did not like the Diebold machine's system for accommodating handicapped voters.
"Anytime you're dealing with equipment... you're going to have problems from time to time," Gwinn said. "It's unfortunate that it happened at this time, but it happened." She added that she feels the ES&S system has the highest level of security because of the paper trail.
"I am still committed to it," she said. Except for the problem with the high-speed vote-counting machines and a few minor snafus, the machines performed very well on Election Day, she said.
Lavelle said he is also still happy with his ion of ES&S. The voting machines leave a paper trail, and because of the paper ballots the county can get an accurate vote count even if there are problems, he said.
"If we had had Diebold, by golly, no telling what would have happened there, too," Lavelle said.
No counties in Ohio that use Diebold machines reported any problems similar to the problems that Athens County encountered with the ES&S machines.