Problematic Primary in Cuyahoga County Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

The primary election of May 2006 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, was marred by serious administrative, personnel, and technological problems, resulting in delays in vote tabulation and probable decreased voter confidence in the electoral structure. This document describes the problems associated with the primary election, and discusses the early actions being taken by the Board of Elections and the Secretary of State to rectify these problems for future elections.

Problems in the May Primary

A. Optical-Scan Machines

Unlike the touch-screen machines that voters used at polling places, Cuyahoga County election officials planned to use optical scanning machines to read and tabulate absentee ballots. For a plethora of disputed reasons, these optical scan machines were not used to count the absentee ballots. Instead, the Board of Elections was forced to hire additional workers to hand-count all of the absentee ballots, which numbered somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 total ballots. [1]

The Board of Elections puts the blame for this failure primarily on the company responsible for the production of the machines, Diebold Elections Inc. [2]  Diebold is responsible for the manufacture of both the optical-scan devices and the touch-screen voting machines used at the poll places. [3]  The Board claims that Diebold shipped the machines late and failed to provide adequate technical support when those machines failed to function properly. [4]

Diebold and some voter advocates disagree, saying the blame falls on the Board of Elections for ordering the machines late and for using a different printer to create the paper ballots read by the optical-scan devices. [5]  According to a Diebold representative, all other counties using the devices used the same Dayton-based printer, while Cuyahoga County alone opted to use a local printer. [6]  That local printer, MCR Inc., did not deliver the ballots until April 30. [7]  Election officials were not able to run tests on the equipment until they received paper ballots, and were thus unable to realize that there was a problem with the machines until 2:30 a.m. on May 2, only a few hours before the primary was scheduled to begin. [8]  It was at this point that the decision to hand-count all of the absentee ballots was made.

B. Personnel Problems

Several personnel problems also occurred during the May primary in Cuyahoga County. The problems started before the election was even officially underway, when as many as twenty percent of the poll workers scheduled to work the election did not show up to work on Election Day. [9]  This absence of so many poll-workers caused the polls to open late, creating delays throughout the day. [10]

In addition to absent employees, poll-workers also managed to lose as many as seventy memory cards used to store votes cast at the polling places. [11]  Of these, as many as a dozen are still considered missing and were not used in the official counting. [12]  Fortunately, this loss apparently did not result in any votes not being counted, as election workers were able to use flash-memory drives from the actual voting machines to count the votes that would have been on the missing memory cards. [13]

The loss of the memory cards is indicative of a bigger problem, one underlying many of the issues faced by Cuyahoga County during the May Primary Election: inadequate training of poll-workers. Two poll workers from Beachwood said that their training amounted to a three-hour preparation course and an instructional video. [14]  These poll workers claimed that their training did not prepare them for the situation that ensued on Election Day, that they were not ready when "things broke down." [15]

Remedial Steps Being Taken

A. Investigative Committee Formed

One of the steps being taken to sort out all of the problems faced in Cuyahoga County during the election is the formation of an investigative committee. The investigative committee was formed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, at the direction of the office of the Ohio Secretary of State. [16]  The committee is made up of a three person panel, including Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine, Lottery Commission Director Thomas Hayes, and Candace Hoke, a law professor from Cleveland State University. [17]

The purpose of this committee is to conduct a wholesale review of how the Board runs elections. [18]  The Committee will examine machine preparation, setting up poll locations, ballot designs, training of poll-workers, and the system for awarding contracts to corporations such as Diebold and the printer of the paper ballots. [19]  The committee is expected to deliver its report to the Board of Elections and Secretary of State Blackwell no later than July 17. [20]

B. Public Forums Held

Another step being taken to address the problems stemming from the primary election is the organization of several public forums in the county to gather information on what transpired during the election. Five of these forums are being hosted by US. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and the information gathered in these forums purportedly will be shared with the investigative committee discussed above. [21]  In addition, the three-member panel is also hosting its own discussion on June 9 at Cleveland State University. [22]  The committee is planning to bring in poll workers, elected officials, and election experts to share ideas in order to prevent more problems from occurring in future elections. [23]

Analysis

Though not even a month has passed since the May primary, lessons can already be learned from the experience of that election. Though many of the involved parties seem quick to point to specific acts of others as causal factors behind any specific problem, it seems clear that, when looking at the situation as a whole, the problems faced in Cuyahoga County are systemic in nature, and one or two "quick fixes" will not solve the greater problem.

The problems facing Cuyahoga County seem generally to stem from a lack of proper preparation, planning, and training. Other counties were able to have the new equipment in place and tested well before Cuyahoga County did, and one has to wonder why such a disparity exists. Part of the problem is certainly bureaucratic in nature, as many of the news articles discuss many hoops and hurdles that seemingly only Cuyahoga County had to jump through. But still more problems could have been prevented by adequate training of poll workers, especially if the preparations were made further in advance.

Further analysis will be possible after the investigative committee releases its report in July, and hopefully their recommendations will be able to help address some of the larger systemic problems illuminated by the May primary. However, the more specific problems, such as the issues with the optical scan devices, poll worker absence, and proper care of memory cards should be addressed immediately, to ensure that such problems do not occur in the general election in November.

It is not clear if the problems faced by Cuyahoga County are indicative of a more serious state-wide problem. With regard to the use of optical-scan devices, the problems suffered in this case seem to be an isolated incident. While other counties did have a few minor glitches, nothing reported came close to the magnitude of problems faced in Cuyahoga County. However, this situation could serve to strengthen the argument put forth by many voter-rights advocates that this is simply indicative of a larger problem, one created by a lack of uniform rules and standards across Ohio. This is the nature of the case currently before the federal court in Toledo.

Whether the cause of these problems is a symptom of something larger at the state level, or rather is something limited to just Cuyahoga County, will hopefully be more clear after the report of the investigative committee.

Notes

[1] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/cuyahoga/
114906424617700.xml&coll=2. News accounts have reported differing numbers as to exactly how many absentee ballots had to be counted by hand due to the failure of the optical-scan devices. A final and accurate number should be determined by the investigative committee discussed below. See also http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/1147953319233580.xml&coll=2

[2] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147175771300610.xml&coll=2

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/cuyahoga/
114906424617700.xml&coll=2

[8] Id.

[9] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147953319233580.xml&coll=2

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147953319233580.xml&coll=2

[14] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147175771300610.xml&coll=2

[15] Id.

[16]http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147175771300610.xml&coll=2

[17] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1147953319233580.xml&coll=2

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] http://www.cleveland.com/election/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/isele/
1148383837216090.xml&coll=2

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.