In an off-year election with low turnout, Franklin County’s longest line on Election Day 2019 likely was at the county board of elections shortly after the polls closed.
Poll workers from around the county converged on the board’s Morse Road headquarters not in the staggered arrivals typical of election night, but mostly together just before 8 p.m. — an unexpected effect of new voting equipment that elections officials say is far easier to manage than older machines.
Across Ohio, most voters cast their ballots on new machines in 2019, a test year before what Secretary of State Frank LaRose believes could be another record voter turnout in 2020.
But in seven counties, voters will cast ballots the same way they have for years: on equipment and systems that date to before President Barack Obama’s first term.
Since state elections officials don’t want voters to encounter a major change in a presidential election year, Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Morrow, Stark and Summit counties are prohibited from rolling out new equipment during the 2020 election cycle. They now must wait until after next year’s general election to tap into about $115 million the state provided for equipment upgrades.
That adds to what is a mix of voting equipment used across the state. In 49 counties, voters fill in bubbles on pre-printed paper ballots that are fed into scanners. The remaining counties use touch-screen or hybrid systems, in which paper ballots are marked on a machine and fed into a scanner.
All of Ohio’s elections have a paper backup.
“The fact that we have different kinds of voting machines in different counties in some ways can be a strength, because if there were some kind of flaw or vulnerability with one type of machine, it wouldn’t necessarily affect elections statewide,” LaRose said.
LaRose and elections officials around the state said that Ohio’s elections are secure, even though local boards are allowed to select their own method of voting and equipment from a list of those vetted by the state and federal governments.
Elections officials are facing greater scrutiny over those systems in a post-2016 world, where meddling in U.S. elections by foreign adversaries is a daily topic of conversation in newspapers and on cable news and social media.
LaRose’s office said an attempted hack of its website on Election Day 2019 originated in Panama from the Russian-owned OKPay Investment Co. The attack was unsuccessful and detected by a digital burglar alarm that is being rolled out to all 88 counties by the end of January, LaRose said.
Ohio law prohibits elections equipment from being connected to the internet, and LaRose has said any attempt to hack into it and alter vote totals would require opening the machine to access its hardware.
That hasn’t stopped questions about the reliability of elections equipment. On Election Day in Pennsylvania’s Northampton County, machines provided by Elections Systems & Software failed to count all ballots in a judge’s race, according to The New York Times.
Elections officials discovered the error when they saw that one candidate had received only 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots. After a hand count of paper backups, that candidate actually had more than 26,000 votes and edged out his opponent, according to the Times.
The manufacturer, ES&S, provides significant portions of the voting equipment used across the country, including in Ohio, according to the nonprofit VerifiedVoting.org. ES&S equipment will be used in 41 states in 2020, the organization’s data show.
Franklin County purchased new ES&S equipment to replace its older machines. Voters feed a blank sheet of paper into the machine, select their candidates electronically on a touch screen, and print the completed ballot. Then they feed the printed ballot into the polling location’s electronic ballot counter.
All machines undergo “logic and accuracy” tests before the election to prevent problems, said Ed Leonard, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. His office has about 3,300 machines to deploy for the 2020 election, plus 550 ballot counters.
LaRose also directed boards in 2019 to conduct post-election audits, which will be required for future elections under a bill the General Assembly passed late last year. The secretary wants more boards to adopt “risk-limiting audits,” which require examining more ballots in closer elections.
Cuyahoga County already is doing that type of audit with its hand-bubbled ballots, said Anthony Perlatti, the county’s elections board director.
The state’s second-largest county hasn’t upgraded its equipment yet in part because its ballot counters are newer — and the same model as those getting upgrades — than those used by other counties, Perlatti said. Cuyahoga County sued its touch-screen provider and, in 2009, used the proceeds to buy new ballot counters and move to the hand-bubbled system.
“With the system that we’ve had, with the actual paper ballot where someone is filling in the oval, we’ve been very successful,” he said, adding that Cuyahoga County plans to use the same system when it buys new equipment in 2021.
Stark County began using its touch-screen system in 2005, but it replaced machines in 2013 after a roof collapse at the board of elections. The county was “more comfortable” using its existing equipment for the busy 2020 election, said Bill James, an information technology specialist with the board of elections.
As other counties have moved to upgrade systems, Morrow County has taken advantage by accepting their old equipment that matches the touch-screen system it uses, said Penny Porter, the county’s elections director.
“They’re still working,” she said. “I can’t say that people aren’t voting correctly or anything like that.”