Summary of Forum on Problematic Primary in Cuyahoga County

On Friday, June 9, 2006, the Cleveland State University's Center for Election Integrity and the League of Women Voters of Cleveland Educational Fund hosted a forum entitled Lessons Learned from Ohio's Primary: Making November a Success. The forum was held at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs on the CSU campus in downtown Cleveland.

The forum was organized into three panelist groupings, in which each panelist gave a short presentation, after which members of the audience were able to ask questions of the panelists. The first group of panelists consisted of election day observers, the second presented analysis by election officials, and the last panel discussed the usability and reliability of new voting technology. The forum was concluded by remarks from Judge Ronald Adrine, the Chair of the Independent Review Panel charged with investigating the problems of the May primary.

Panel 1: Election Day Observers

Sherece Gray, Outreach Coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Cleveland Educational Fund, the first panelist, identified three problem areas that the LWV identified as in need of repair. First, the LWV found that many voters were nervous about new technology and skeptical of the reliability of the new voting machines. Second, the LWV found that during the elections voters were plagued by improper instructions from poll workers, many of whom seemed to know no more about the new technology than the average voter, evidencing a lack of proper poll worker training. Finally, she faulted the Board of Elections for not doing enough with respect to outreach, as, in her opinion, they should have had more demonstrations to allow the voters to become more comfortable with the changes in voting in Cuyahoga County.

The second observer was Chris Nance, Deputy District Director for Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, whose district is made up primarily of Cuyahoga County. Mr. Nance outlined the steps that are being taken by the Congresswoman, both separately and in conjunction with the independent review panel, to investigate the election problems in Cuyahoga County. The Congresswoman has conducted several hearings independently, and will present her report to both the investigative panel and the public when complete. He emphasized that while some problems are small and localized, many of the problems are systemic and come from a lack of general standards governing the election process. To date, the Congresswoman's investigations have focused on the training of poll workers and technicians, the voting machines used in the county, and the recruitment process for poll workers. Mr. Nance reported on the positive and negative testimony given in those hearings, in a preliminary format, but these "findings" often contradicted each other. For example, one of the positive findings for training was that the instructors were helpful and that the workers received a sufficient amount of training. However, the negative findings directly contradicted these findings, as they found that not enough time was spent training on certain procedures, or that the training was too long, and that too little time was given on the actual voting machines.

Drawing a conclusion from Mr. Nance's presentation was difficult, as he presented each finding with equal weight, but hopefully the final report publicized by the Congresswoman's office will shed more light on the apparent contradictions. The general recommendations presented by Mr. Nance were: to increase recruitment of younger poll workers, specifically high school and college students; to update and simplify the training manual for poll workers; to develop a test to ensure that election workers are qualified and knowledgeable; and, to adjust the "classroom size" for poll worker training to give each poll worker more time to train in a practical environment. Mr. Nance predicted that the Congresswoman's report would be finished near the end of June, 2006.

Ron Olson, from Citizens' Alliance for Secure Elections (CASE), presented an evaluation as part of a project named "Adopt a BOE," which has the goal of working with various Boards of Elections in Ohio to improve the election process. His report contained recommendations, his account as an Election Day Technician (EDT), and a summary of the Cuyahoga County election process. Mr. Olson commented that those responsible for training EDTs seemed well prepared (though other EDTs who were in attendance refuted this finding during the question and answer period), but that a more organized plan should have been in place for machine allocation and for the relationship between EDTs and election judges. In general, Mr. Olson recommended increased training of EDTs, more training on end-of-day procedures, and that judges should grade EDT performance to increase EDT accountability. Mr. Olson also discussed the discrepancies in allocation of responsibility between the BOE and individual polling places, adding that increased responsibility in an individual polling place could alleviate many of the problems faced later in an election day.

The final panelist in the first group was Dr. Norman Robbins, a member of the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition. The coalition has conducted research on five different election problems which they claim disenfranchise many voters in Cuyahoga County. These problems include registration problems, votes lost due to rejections of provisional ballots, votes lost due to long lines at polling places, voters that may have difficulty producing identification (ID requirements were not in effect for the May primary election but will be in November), and thousands of voters not registered because of a failure to enforce the National Voter Registration Act requirement that public assistance agencies offer registration and change of address applications to their clients. Dr. Robbins estimated that if each of the problems researched by the coalition had the effect anticipated, as many as 55,000 votes (10% of all votes cast) could be lost or put at risk in the November election.

Panel II: Elections Officials

The second group of panelists consisted of the directors of the Boards of Elections for three of the most populous counties in Ohio. Matt Damschroder, Director of the BOE in Franklin County, detailed the election system used in Franklin County. He credited the successes in election reform in Franklin County to collaboration between public and private entities, a good relationship between the county and the voting technology vendor used in Franklin County (ES&S), and a commitment to constantly seeking improvement. He described running elections as an evolutionary process, as there is always room for improvement. He found that one "plus" for Franklin County in their May primary was a focus on practical application training for poll workers, as they had an opportunity to have hands-on experience in running and operating the new voting technology.

Bryan Williams, director of the Summit County BOE, described their elections system, which is quite different from both Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties in that Summit County only uses optical scan ballots, and only provides touch-screen machines for disabled voters. He described the Summit County training experience, and, similarly to the technique used in Franklin County, found that a hands-on approach to poll worker training was the most efficient. He found that the biggest problems faced by a BOE in carrying out an election of such magnitude is retention of training materials by poll workers (since most are trained up to a month before the actual election), and working out the best method to distribute the equipment to the poll locations. He also faulted the federal government for their passage of the Help America Vote Act, which he claimed was hastily put together and would have significantly benefited from a more thought-out implementation plan, such as pilot programs in a handful of cities to work out glitches before rolling it out to the rest of the country.

The final member of the panel was Michael Vu, director of the BOE for Cuyahoga County. Mr. Vu, who had been the subject of many negative articles in the press in Cleveland, seemed determined to both inform the forum as to what went wrong, and to set the record straight on several issues that he felt were not reported accurately by the press. Mr. Vu explained that the only significant problem that occurred in the May primary was the failure of the optical-scan devices, which delayed the BOE in posting the results of the election as all of the absentee ballots (over 18,000) had to be hand-counted. He explained that almost all of the other problems reported were simply issues that are bound to be faced when converting to a new system, and emphasized that these problems were certainly not limited to Cuyahoga County. According to Mr. Vu, these other problems only attracted the interest of the press because of the main problem with the optical-scan devices. He also made a point to correct one significant fact that had been reported, that twenty percent of poll workers did not show up to work. He said that there was no basis for that figure, and that while some poll workers did not show up, the number of absences was no greater than usual. He faulted the press for attributing a percentage from another statistic to poll worker absence, a mistake that could easily have been avoided. (Twenty percent of poll locations did not open on time, though even of these most opened soon after they were supposed to be open.)

Several interesting pieces of information were introduced during the question and answer period following this panel group. One member of the audience asked if the Secretary of State's office did anything to foster cooperation and collaboration between the various county Boards of Election. The directors responded that there was such collaboration, but that it was done by the directors, without the influence of the Secretary of State. Another round of questioning concerned influence by the Secretary of State regarding creation of poll worker manuals. The directors responded that the Secretary of State's office reviewed manuals created by the vendors of voting machines, but otherwise did not play a role in manuals, either for creation or approval purposes.

Panel III: Voting Technologists

The final panelist group dealt with the issue of usability and reliability of new voting technology. The first panelist to present was Hugh Shannon, Government Services Coordination Manager for Cuyahoga County. Mr. Shannon discussed his efforts to review the May primary as a member of the Cuyahoga County government. His efforts included contracting with an outside research institute, the Election Science Institute, to gain a complete view of what happened across the board in the election. The study, which was arranged before the election occurred, included an exit poll to measure voter satisfaction with the new technology, monitoring the nature of calls to the command center at the Board of Elections, interviews with poll workers, and a paper audit of the records kept by the voting machines to make sure they matched the official results. Mr. Shannon said that initially, it appears that the characterization of the election by the media has not been accurate when taken in context. According to their surveys, approximately 94% of voters liked the new voting machines and were confident that their vote would be counted accurately. He said that the goal for the November election should be to make the vote as open, transparent, and fair as possible.

The final panelist of the forum was Brian Phillips, from Sys Test Labs. Sys Test is one of only a few companies in the country that is responsible for certifying voting machines before the manufacturer can sell them to local governments. Mr. Phillips discussed the difficulties in utilizing absentee ballots in general, and cited insufficient pre-election testing as the reason for the problems that occurred in the May primary. He discussed in general terms the overall reliability of electronic voting machines, claiming that there was no evidence that the systems used by Cuyahoga County or others in Ohio are not reliable. His company, which certifies both the machines themselves and the software that runs on the machines, must re-certify a machine whenever a new "patch" for the software is implemented.

In his final comments, Judge Adrine, chair of the Independent Review Panel, discussed the work that had been done thus far by his investigative committee. He described the process as quite hurried, as they are required to make an interim report by June 14 (which he describes as simply a progress report) while the committee's final report is due on July 17. Judge Adrine described the task as a large task that had to be done in a very small time period, but he appeared confident that the process would yield positive results. He said that the number one goal of the committee was to restore public confidence in the electoral system in Cuyahoga County entering into the November general election.

Analysis

After hearing first-hand accounts regarding the May primary, there seems to be more evidence that the problems faced by Cuyahoga County were not as serious as the press reported and not unique to that county. Any time a new system is being implemented, there are going to be some glitches, and even with the best preparation, human errors are going to take place. The one problem that absolutely must be addressed is the technological issue regarding the optical-scan devices, and this appears to be the primary focus of the investigative panel. There is much more time to work out that specific problem leading up to the general election than there was before the primary, and hopefully the panel can properly assess the situation to offer suggestions in order to prevent a recurrence of that problem.

It seems that the majority of other problems deal not as much with technology as with the human side of the equation, specifically poll workers and Election Day Technicians. One of the common themes running throughout the forum was that a vast majority of the citizens who volunteer to serve as poll workers are elderly and are extremely uncomfortable working with technology. A more concerted effort to bring in younger, more technologically literate poll workers would seem to be a good first step towards increasing the quality of the election process, and there are other benefits from using that age group as well. Mr. Vu stated that he would love to bring in younger poll workers, but that the interest just did not seem to be there. He indicated that he found this to be indicative of a greater societal problem of civic apathy among younger generations. His conclusion is a reasonable one, especially considering low voter turnout historically among younger citizens. Getting young people, especially high school students, involved in governmental processes as election workers would seem to be a great way not only to have better qualified workers, but also to spark interest in government in these students while they are at an impressionable age. Similar approaches are being taken in other states, as election officials seem to realize that the level of comfort with technology is significantly different between older and younger generations of Americans.

For More Information

For more information regarding this forum and the independent review panel, please visit the following websites: