Here’s how your vote was counted on Election Day; our reporter was there

A Dayton Daily News reporter watched from behind the scenes as Montgomery County elections officials worked to deliver timely and accurate election results in a historic election rife with concerns about vote fraud.

The Dayton Daily News took the step to get two reporters certified as official election observers in Montgomery County to provide voters transparency into the process. This story examines what one reporter witnessed as voters went to the polls and workers counted ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Our reporter saw minor hiccups and human errors, but backup and contingency plans were in place for every issue as 263,880 ballots were counted that night.

The polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday after 13 hours of in-person voting with no major problems reported. Lines stretched a little more than an hour at times, but were sparse by evening.

Rebecca Privett of Dayton was the last person to drop off her ballot at the drop box at the Montgomery County Board of Elections, pulling in at exactly 7:30 p.m. Privett said she was held up on a call at work and was afraid she wouldn’t make it.

“It’s important (to vote) in every year’s election, because that’s how we make our decisions about where this country or our government, local, state and federal, is going,” she said.

Two Montgomery County Board of Elections employees — one Democrat and one Republican — stood by as Privett dropped her ballot in a blue bin. They then locked the bin and together carried it inside.

The count begins

The moment the polls closed, the count began. In the days since the election, counting ballots has been a source of controversy nationwide with claims by President Donald Trump of a lack of transparency in states like Michigan. Our reporter was given full access to observe the counting of ballots here.

The Dayton Daily News obtained election observer status this year by having a group of six candidates for local office — three Democrats and three Republicans — sign a form. Our reporter had to swear an oath not to interfere in any way with the process, nor disclose how any elector voted.

Within minutes of the polls closing, the results of 155,000 votes cast early were tallied and uploaded to the board’s website. In a previous story, the Dayton Daily News reported how these early votes were handled before they could be tabulated on Election Day.

Votes cast on Election Day were stored in either two or three scanning machines at each polling place. When the polls closed, blue bins containing paper ballots were pulled out of these machines and sealed with a lock. The vote tally was stored on encrypted USB cards that were also retrieved from the machines and placed in plastic cases.

The ballots in blue bins, as well as USB cards and other materials — in a canvas bag with the zipper affixed with a seal — were then loaded into cars and driven to the board of elections by a vehicle containing one member of each party. This was done for each of the county’s 143 polling locations.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Ballots delivered, sorted

The basement parking garage of the board of elections Tuesday night bustled as elections workers directed traffic and quickly retrieved from each vehicle the elections materials and a chain of custody log showing everyone who handled them.

One woman pulled in by herself, prompting election workers to ask where the other worker was. She was ordered to stay there until the other worker could be found and proper chain of custody verified. The Ohio Secretary of State directed that bipartisan poll workers were required to ride in the same vehicle, though elections officials said a couple of people weren’t comfortable with that because of COVID-19, so the two people drove separately.

Election Day involves more than 2,000 elections workers in Montgomery County alone, the vast majority of whom only work on Election Day, noted Montgomery County Board of Elections Deputy Director Steve Harsman.

“Obviously you’re going to have some hiccups,” he said.

After an elections worker verified all the materials delivered by each car, the bag and box were passed from person-to-person down a flight of stairs and then rushed into a sorting room. The boxes were loaded into a long-shelved room nicknamed the “bowling alley.”

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

“All the blue bins go in here and each precinct is identified. These are the voted ballots. They don’t get touched until a recount situation,” Harsman said.

A worker used a screwdriver to pop the seals off the canvas bags. The cases holding the USB cards were retrieved first and handed to the same bipartisan pair who closed down the drop box. The bags were then moved to one of several tables where workers extracted provisional ballots, unvoted ballots and other materials, and arranged them on metal shelves.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

A small team went through the provisional ballots and sorted them by precinct to be verified and counted later.

Votes counted

The cases holding the USB cards were rushed out of the room and down the hall to a table where Montgomery County Board of Elections Director Jan Kelly personally sat and marked them off as they arrived. Harsman and Kelly are members of different political parties.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

“(We are) doing a check off, to verify that we get the appropriate amount of sticks back before they even get into the computer room,” Harsman said, referring to the room where the votes are uploaded into computers.

After Kelly’s check, Harsman handed the USB sticks to a second person several feet away in the computer room who logged them as arriving with a handheld barcode scanner.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

A problem emerged. Some of the cases were supposed to have three USB cards but only contained two. Harsman ordered staff to send police officers to secure the polling locations while they contacted the poll workers, as well as the people who had the key to buildings where the machines were.

The issue, they quickly learned, was that some polling locations were given three scanning machines, but they only used two of them and workers didn’t realize that they needed the cards from the unused machines before any votes from that location could be counted.

“Good elections officials always have a contingency plan built into every process, and this is no different,” Harsman said as workers rushed out to retrieve the missing cards.

New orders were given to make sure poll workers knew to return every USB card at the polling place, even blank ones.

Elections board ‘very pleased’

In a room across the hall, the bipartisan members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections sat at a folding table, keeping an eye on the process and standing by in case something came up they needed to vote on. No such issues arose.

“I’m very pleased with how well the whole system went today,” said board Chairwoman Rhine McClin, one of two Democrats on the board.

“(Voters) were kind, they were patient, and they were resolute in their determination to vote, and that’s something I appreciate,” said Kay Wick, one of two Republicans on the board.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Tuesday was the largest yet test of a new voting system Montgomery County just adopted last year. One benefit of the new system is that votes are stored on only two or three scanners per location, instead of each marking machine. This means they only have to track the return of 358 USB cards instead of the 2,600 data cards used before.

“This is my eighth presidential election, and by far this was the best ran, least amount of problem election we had period, let alone in a presidential (year),” Harsman said.

Troubleshooting problems

Once the USB cards were verified, they were handed to a technician who uploaded them into the computer that retrieved the vote totals from the encrypted cards. That computer is not connected to the internet — none of the voting equipment is.

Another issue arose when one of the USB cards malfunctioned and couldn’t be read by the computer. Harsman sent the bipartisan pair of workers to the “bowling alley” to retrieve the paper ballots from that machine and bring them back to the computer room.

There, they organized them so they were all facing the same direction and put them into a machine specifically designed to count them and make sure they were all there. Once that was confirmed, they were run through a scanner and the votes uploaded to a fresh USB card.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

“You’ve got a tangible backup built into the system so whatever happens, you have the paper backup,” Harsman said.

Vote counting continued. In the auditorium of the county building, converted that night into a media room where local television stations set up cameras and lights, a large screen showed which precincts were outstanding.

At 10 p.m., much of Clay and Jackson townships were still being delivered, as well as part of Monroe and a smattering of precincts south of Dayton.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Several races changed throughout the night for largely technical reasons. The first votes uploaded were early, mostly mailed-in votes that favored Democrats. And because the board of elections is in Dayton, urban precincts tend to arrive first and rural precincts later. This caused a shift to the right in some races over the course of the evening.

Final votes being counted

Roughly every 20 minutes, a cumulative report was run and put on a separate USB card. That card was plugged into a computer that is connected to the internet so totals could be transmitted to the Ohio Secretary of State and posted on the board’s website. Once a USB card is used for that purpose, it is stored elsewhere and not plugged back into the other computers.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

This process continued until all that was left after 11 p.m. were half a dozen USB cards where poll workers forgot to deliver the third unused card. An election worker at 11:45 p.m. breathlessly ran down the hall with the final card.

Election Day was over and nearly 71 percent of registered voters in Montgomery County cast ballots, but elections officials' work wasn’t — and isn’t — done.

Harsman ran a report showing 7,154 provisional ballots had been cast and 6,731 absentee ballots had been sent to voters but not yet returned. The board is working now to verify those provisional ballots and process absentee ballots received, which will be counted if they are postmarked by Nov. 2 and arrive within 10 days. They will be counted after Nov. 16 and the final results certified by the board of elections Nov. 18.

A few minor issues popped up on election night, but the checks and balances in place appeared to have work and resolve them quickly. To date, no candidate or political party has questioned the accuracy of the results in Montgomery County.

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