We go behind the scenes at the board of elections. Here’s what we saw during early voting

Dayton Daily News reporters get certified as election observers

The Dayton Daily News is serving as official observers of this election, including witnessing the early voting process last week at the Montgomery County Board of Elections to document how ballots are being cast and kept in the runup to Election Day.

Nearly 130,000 ballots already cast in Montgomery County were stored in a room in the sub-basement of the board of elections called the “computer room.” The room is monitored by cameras, secured with two locks requiring a Democrat and Republican to open the only door, and staffed at all times by at least one member of each party.

There are backups of each vote — hard copy and electronic — and none of the devices votes are stored on are connected to the internet. The data is encrypted and none of the votes will be tabulated until polls close on Election Day.

“It’s completely secure,” said Montgomery County Board of Elections Deputy Director Steve Harsman.

The reporter was there on Wednesday as a certified election observer. The Dayton Daily News took the step of obtaining election observer status this year. Our reporters will also observe the casting and counting of ballots on Election Day.

“Transparency is key to a well functioning government and that transparency includes oversight of elections by nonprofits, the media and political parties,” said Jen Miller, president of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “At the end of the day, you are the eyes and the ears of the people and I applaud Dayton Daily News for being creative and getting into that space.”

Miller is one of five members of an elections expert panel assemble by the Dayton Daily News, another effort aimed at helping voters understand their rights and obligations.

Election observers are usually appointed by political parties. Under Ohio law, they can be appointed by parties, a group of five or more candidates, or a committee supporting or opposing a ballot issue.

The Dayton Daily News obtained the signatures of six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans all running against each other — to appoint two reporters as official election observers in Montgomery County both during early voting and on Election Day.

“We took this extra step this year because we know our readers are concerned about making sure our country has a safe and accurate voting experience," said Dayton Daily News Editor Jim Bebbington. "Our reporters always keep an eye on local elections and voting, but this year we committed extra resources because of heightened concern that this election capture an accurate count.”

The public’s confidence in the outcome of the election is particularly important in Montgomery County, a battleground that President Donald Trump flipped to Republican in 2016 and some political experts say could seal Ohio if he wins it again.

As of last week, more than a third of the registered voters in Montgomery County had already cast their ballots. So our reporter observed how votes are being cast and handled before Election Day.

Votes are coming in by mail, at the on-site drop box, or by voters casting ballots in-person either at the early voting location in the board of elections or curbside voting in the county parking garage.

Mailed votes

Mailed in votes — the majority of ballots cast so far in this election — are picked up along with the rest of the county mail several times a day from the U.S. Post Office in Dayton. They are transported to a small room that has two locks and is opened and staffed by at least one Democrat and one Republican.

There, all the roughly 82,000 ballots that were mailed, dropped off or voted curbside are processed. One machine opens the exterior envelope and another machine takes a picture of each interior envelope printed on the outside with the voter’s identifying information and signature. Every image is reviewed by a board of elections employee who compares the information and signature to the voter’s registration.

Harsman said it’s “very, very, very, very rare” that a ballot is rejected because of a mismatched signature.

On Wednesday, a woman sat at a desk processing the rejected ballots, most because they are missing a signature or identification information. About 125 ballots were in a file. The voter for each was sent a letter — and contacted by phone or email if they left contact information — and has until seven days after the election to “cure” their ballot.

“Every day she cleans some out. Every day she adds some. But out of 82,000, this is all the ballots that are insufficient. This is relatively a very small fraction of the amount of ballots,” Harsman said.

The approved envelopes are run through another machine that opens them. And the stubs identifying the voters are cut off the ballots.

“This is what maintains the secrecy of your ballot. You’re assigned this ballot number but once this is torn off, we can never tell it’s your ballot again,” Harsman said.

The ballots themselves are transported — again by representatives from both parties — to the “computer room,” where they are run through a scanner then stored on shelves.

In the computer room, small stacks of ballots are in bins labeled “remake.” Those generally include some mistake by the voter and have to be reviewed and filled in again by bipartisan election officials to make sure the voter’s intent is registered by the machine. The Montgomery County Board of Election is scheduled to approve roughly 150-200 remade ballots on Monday.

On some ballots, for example, voters filled in the bubble next to either Donald Trump or Joe Biden but also wrote in the candidates' name. Elections officials call it a “double bubble.”

“The state allows us to remake this ballot because (the voter intent) is clear,” Harsman said.

For mailed ballots, there are three copies of each vote: the paper ballots themselves stacked on shelves, the tabulation stored in the scanner that reads the ballots, and a backup of the scanner on the USB drive. For in-person early votes, paper ballots are also stored in bins and vote tallies from the machines are on USB drives. None of them are added up until polls close on Election Day.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Drop box, curbside voting

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered county boards of election to limit drop box locations for absentee ballots to one location per county. Multiple boxes can be used, as long as they are at the same location.

About 17,000 voters have used a drop box in Montgomery County. The boxes are under 24/7 video surveillance and have a double lock that can only be opened by a Democrat and a Republican.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Absentee ballots can be deposited into the drop box until 7:30 p.m. Election Day, Tuesday, Nov.3.

Jeff Parsons of Riverside was one of about 100 people per day who used curbside voting, parking in a designated area on the first floor of the Montgomery County parking garage.

“It’s more convenient than waiting in line around other people, and safer,” he said.

Parsons parked in a designated spot and a bipartisan pair of elections workers equipped with personal protective equipment came to the vehicle to get his information. They printed a paper ballot that he filled out in his car then he turned on his emergency blinkers to let them know he was done.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

“There’s three reasons they can vote curbside: If they’re handicapped, if they have COVID symptoms or COVID concerns,” Harsman said. “So basically anyone can participate in curbside voting if they have a concern with COVID.”

Curbiside voting will be offered at all polling places on Election Day.

Once collected, curbside and drop-box ballots are processed the same as mailed ballots.

The board of elections rented the entire county parking garage so voters don’t have to pay to park to vote. Both political parties keep people stationed in the garage at the building entrance to offer people slate cards and yard signs. They can’t come within 10 feet of voters standing in line or 100 feet of the polling place.

Both Republican and Democratic volunteers said the process was going well.

Much of that floor of the garage is marked off to allow voters six feet between them as they stand in line. Harsman said it’s about a 20 minute wait from the building entrance.

In person, early voting

The 3,288 people who voted in person at the board of elections Wednesday was a new daily record for Montgomery County. More than 43,000 people had done so in total at that point. When the reporter visited late that morning, a couple dozen people were in line.

No COVID-19 cases have been traced to early voting in Montgomery County, Harsman said.

In-person voting is a three-step process. A voter first goes to one of a dozen check-in stations verify his or her identity. The elections worker then takes a blank strip of ballot paper and stamps it with a marker identifying the voter’s precinct.

The voter then feeds the stamped ballot into a machine that reads that stamp and prompts voters on a touch screen through the races. Voters are given pens with rubber tips to use as a stylus so they don’t have to touch the machines. They can keep the pens or deposit them to be sanitized and reused.

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

The marking machine prints the votes onto the ballot and spits it back out. The voter can review the ballot to make sure it’s correct before feeding it into another machine that reads the ballot and stores the vote on a USB drive.

“At the end of voting, we’ll take that out and plug that into the server and then transfer all these votes into the server and combine them with everything else,” Harsman sad.

Linda Monnin of Washington Twp. said her early voting experience was fabulous.

“You have it set up very well, it’s organized, you have plenty of people to guide you and tell you where to go, the lines are short, everyone is extremely friendly,” she said.

Election Protection watching polls

As an election observer, the Dayton Daily News reporter had to swear the following oath: “You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”

Aaron Ockerman, director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials and a member of the Dayton Daily News elections expert panel, said it’s important for people to know that despite Trump directing people to, “Go into the polls and watch very carefully,” residents can’t just show up and loiter inside polling places.

“(Official election observers') role is to bring transparency to the process and see what’s going in in a polling location,” he said. “If they see something they perceive to be an issue, they can talk to poll workers about it.”

Other groups will be stationed outside precincts on Election Day. This includes the Election Protection Coalition, a coalition of groups that provided training last week to volunteers statewide.

“The whole goal is to make sure every voter is able to cast their ballot on Election Day and have that ballot counted,” Camille Wimbish, election administration director at Ohio Voice, told volunteers.

They were told to talk to voters as they exit polling places to look out for things like a large number of people being directed to vote by provisional ballot, poll workers enforcing too strict identification rules or voter intimidation. Volunteers and voters are asked to call 866-OUR-VOTE if they see a problem.

Ellis Jacobs with the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition said they received complaints to their hotline early on about long lines to vote early in Greene County and elections officials not letting voters who requested an absentee ballot in the mail instead vote early in-person by regular ballot..

“That’s been cleared up and we haven’t heard that complaint for a while,” he said. “I’m fully anticipating things will go smoothly and that a lot of people are going to get to vote."

‘Guard rails’ in place

Miller with the League of Woman Voters said things Dayton Daily News observers should look for on Election Day include whether confrontations occur over mask-wearing, how orderly lines are moving and how often people are given provisional ballots.

Another thing that might cause Election Day confusion is the number of outstanding mail-in ballots. Voters can’t drop them off at their polling place but can put them in their county’s drop box until polls close at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. How elections officials determine who is in line to drop off a ballot when the polls close could be an issue, she said.

But also worth noting, Miller said, is “the guard rails around the entire process and how there is all this oversight of every little detail.”

Catherine Turcer, with Common Cause Ohio, another member of the Election Protection Coalition, said Ohio’s “Noah’s Ark” system requiring one person from each party for everything should give voters confidence.

“The thing that is depressing is the people who suggest the vote counting is not going well or they are questioning things going on, they are sharing this because they don’t want people to vote,” she said. “I would encourage everyone to vote and know there are good structures in place to make sure your votes are counted.”

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