Evaluating ballot counting process in Franklin County after extended primary election

Local News

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The only thing the workers at the Franklin County Board of Elections knew before the final day of the extended March 17th Primary Election started was they had 40,000 ballots sent out that had not been returned.

While they didn’t know exactly how many ballots they were going to have to process would be, it was going to fall somewhere in that range.   

The number of returned ballots turned out to be around 21,000 with the vast majority of them coming through the mail.   

To put that in perspective, that is more ballots in one day than 69 counties had to count for the entire election, based on unofficial numbers on the Ohio Secretary of State’s website.

Delays occurred in counting and reporting the ballots due to the sheer volume submitted at the last minute.

Under normal circumstances,the election process is almost fully automated.

Thousands of ballots are cast simultaneously on election day with all of them recorded by computers that store the information and prepare it for later when the poll workers download the totals to a USB drive and take it back to the board of elections office where that drive’s information is uploaded into another computer that compiles all the data.   

A large portion of reporting delays has to do with poll workers needing to close down polls at the end of the election and the time it takes for them to drive to the county seat and the board of elections’ headquarters.   

In those normal elections, early voting and absentee ballots are the first votes reported because they are already on hand at the board of elections. As more precincts roll in, their numbers are added and the totals are updated.   

But the process was much different for Tuesday’s extended primary.

First, there was no immediate upload of votes already cast by boards of elections. They had the information on hand, but they were told by Secretary of State Frank LaRose not to upload any results until all the results were in hand.   

People who were expecting to see results immediately at 7:30 p.m. on election night as they normally would saw none from Franklin County. They continued to see none until nearly 2:00 a.m. Wednesday.

The next major difference was in how the voting data was compiled. Instead of using the touch screen machines at more than 300 polling locations across the county, voters had to fill out a paper ballot and send it in to their board of elections. Those workers then had to run the ballot for them slowing down the process even more.

When the nearly 17,000 ballots were brought back to the Franklin County Board of Elections Tuesday morning, workers had to remove the ballot envelope from the mailing envelope. The mailing envelope is extraneous and is disposed of while the ballot envelope is sent to a high-speed machine.   

The machine takes a picture of the front of the ballot envelope, which asked for a birth date, the last four digits of a social security number or driver’s license number followed by a signature.

This process is where one of the first bottlenecks occurred because humans have to view the image and compare the information to the voter’s registration to make sure the ballot inside is from the person registered to vote.   

That worker then decided if the ballot envelope had the required information and is good to proceed or if it needs to be pulled out because of a problem, and indicates such in the computer program.   

Once a batch of envelopes have been verified, that batch can be run through the same machine for a second time. This time, however, the machine will recognize whether a ballot is good to proceed or needs to be separated into the problem pile. It will also sort all of the ballots into groups based on wards saving a tremendous amount of time.   

Each ward pile is brought to people who first have to set the pile face down so they cannot see the information on the front of the envelope. They then take the top envelop and remove the ballot inside and remove a tab on the ballot. Both the tab and the envelope are set aside to be saved for 22 months.   

The ballot is then is placed in a bin specific for that ward so that when the pile is exhausted, the bin can be taken to the next machine.   

The pile of ballots are then sent through a final high-speed machine, which keeps track of all the votes in all of the elections and stores not only the tallies, but also takes pictures of each ballot.

Normally, the board of elections don’t get anywhere near this many paper ballots on election day, but knowing they would need to handle a significant number, Franklin County had at the height of processing these ballots, 30-32 people working their way through more than 21,000 ballots.   

They worked in pairs because everything that is done at the Board of Elections is done in the presence of both a Republican and a Democrat.   

That meant they had to figure out how to get two people close enough to make sure the process ran fairly while maintaining safe social distancing due to the ongoing coronavirus.

It took the workers somewhere between 13 and 19 hours to process 21,000 ballots Tuesday.

The number of ballots processed to be counted was coincidentally roughly the maximum number of ballots that can be produced and shipped out in a day, which was around 21,000 according to estimates from the Board of Elections.    

Other counties were delayed due to a smaller workforce and lack of high-tech equipment despite having significantly fewer ballots than Franklin County.

Moving forward, Ed Leonard, Director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, says they aren’t going to wait for lawmakers and the secretary of state to figure out exactly what to do about the November presidential election.

“One of the things we will be doing over the course is reaching out to jurisdictions, large jurisdictions, in areas of the country that do large-scale vote-by-mail activities so that we can see what lessons they can share with us that may be beneficial to us,” Leonard said.

Additionally, they plan to look back at this recent election and break it down into wins and losses.   

“Identify what specifically are the things that we did well this time around that we need to carry with us, and then what are the things that we need to tweak based on what we’ve learned this election cycle,” said Leonard. “What’s critical for us in preparation for the fall is we’ve got to start planning early. We really do need to start educating voters early.”   

He says one thing that became very clear with this primary is voters were confused. He said some expected to receive their ballot in the mail when they made their request and instead received the application for a ballot.   

He also says the board is going to have to figure out where they will be able to securely store the anticipated nearly 600,000 paper ballots and the envelopes that come in during the election because the room they use for that now may not be able to accommodate such a large number.

“In an environment where we have to keep people safely distanced, we can only have so many people within those defined spaces actually handling those ballots,” said Leonard.   

He added if they do need to bring in additional equipment, they will need at least 90 days to test the equipment for accuracy and security.

The board was able to get away with two machines running constantly to keep up with the volume of ballots; but if the volume triples or quadruples in November, they will need four or five machines to keep up, and they will need the people and space to have them processing as well.   

“It is a very labor intensive process,” Leonard said. “Technology can only add so much to the efficiency.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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