What Happened Here in Hamilton County?

Voting was bumpy and in a few cases very difficult. Should we be worried?

One of the most important questions to come out of last night’s election isn’t about the results of any specific ballot issue, but instead about the process by which voters cast, or, in some cases, had a hard time casting, their ballots.

Many are wondering why voting was so arduous in Hamilton County yesterday, with technical glitches forcing some voters to cast provisional ballots and imprecise information given by poll workers sending other voters scrambling.

While the entire state of Ohio, and really, much of the country, waited to see if voters would legalize marijuana here, Hamilton County fumbled with errors. Now, some are wondering whether these stumbles are related to a new electronic voting system, and if the difficulties could spell trouble during next year’s sure-to-be-contentious presidential election, where Ohio will play a central role.

Voters reported problems with the county’s new voting system in the West End, Madisonville, Evanston, Northside, Clifton, Coryville, Mount Lookout, Roselawn, Hyde Park, Northside and other areas. The system, which relies on tablet computers to scan IDs and check in voters, hasn’t been used before.

Secretary of State Jon Husted put the entire state’s election results on hold so the county could extend voting times until 9 pm. The order for polls to stay open an extra two hours came from a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert P. Ruehlman in response to injunctions from Issue 3-backers ResponsibleOhio and former State Sen. Eric Kerney, who cited long lines at some polling stations.

The appeals to the court came after voters in a number of precincts throughout the county reported that, though they had registered to vote months prior, the new electronic voting system employed by the county did not recognize their names and would not allow them to cast electronic ballots, even if their registration was confirmed by written voter logs. Some were asked to cast provisional ballots, or to head to the Hamilton County Board of Elections office downtown.

Jane Pendergrast of Delhi Township reported on Twitter that she had to cast a provisional ballot after her name didn’t show up in the e-poll books. Pendergrast said a poll worker told her the same difficulties had happened to about 50 other voters at the polling location.

Meanwhile, other poll workers were confused by ID requirements and asked voters to cast provisional ballots unnecessarily, some voters say.

The provisional ballots are only counted if elections are close, leading some voters to feel like their votes didn’t matter.

Kevin LeMasters voted at one of the county’s largest polling locations, the Coryville Recreation Center. That voting location serves more than 1,700 voters. He says poll workers there were requiring voters to fill out provisional ballots if the address on their IDs did not match information in the Board of Election’s electronic system, despite the fact that’s not what BOE rules stipulate.

“What concerns me is the following, this particular location is the 2nd largest polling location out of 557 in Hamilton and should be staffed appropriately,” LeMasters said in an e-mail. “It is situated close to UC's campus where the large majority of students do not have an ID with the same address considering the fluid nature of their housing. Was this an accident, something nefarious? Whether malice or ignorance, it is unacceptable either way.”

Secretary of State Husted visited Hamilton County polling locations earlier in the day, when difficulties voting were already being reported. Husted blamed poll worker error for the problems, despite the fact many seemed to be technical in nature and had much to do with the new electronic system used to gather votes.

“"By and large, it's working great," Husted said yesterday. "Any time you have a massive technology change, you're going to have some problems."

Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson pushed back at Husted’s assertion via social media, saying constituents were reporting that tablets used in vote gathering were freezing or not connecting to the internet; technical problems that aren’t necessarily due to poll worker error.

Meanwhile, other, non-technical difficulties popped up. In Northside, some voters found themselves locked out of a polling location around 7:30 pm, even though it was ordered to stay open until 9. Eventually, voters there were able to gain entry to the location, which poll workers said had been locked by school staff.

The voting difficulties are the latest chapter in Ohio's fraught struggle over voting access. Voting rights advocates have fought state efforts to reduce voting hours in recent elections, especially in urban areas.

Hamilton County Board of Elections members said no voters appear to have lost the opportunity to vote due to the difficulties and that they don't represent any sort of disenfranchisement, either accidental or purposeful.

But the rocky questions linger about the electronic system, which is set to go state-wide next year, just as the country focuses on Ohio and its pivotal role in deciding an especially heated presidential election.

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