Defenders of democracy: Inside the Portage County Board of Elections

Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

It has become fashionable in some political circles to foment distrust in the American voting system. But elections officials from both parties in Portage County say claims of rampant fraud are false and dangerous.

Amanda Suffecool, a Republican member of the Portage County Board of Elections and chair of the county GOP, said media reports can actually sow suspicion, taking anecdotal evidence of voter fraud and falsely generalizing it as a nationwide problem.

“They’re not careful or clear to point out which states those are, so in a lot of people’s minds, they look at elections as a whole United States type thing, when what it actually is is state by state,” Suffecool said.

Ohio, Suffecool said, is actually being held up to other states as a benchmark of how elections should be run. She encourages voters of all political persuasions to vote regularly and trust the process.

“I think people would be surprised at the two-by-two process where pretty much everything that they do at the Board of Elections is done with a Republican and a Democrat working together,” she said. “There are rules and regulations set in place that are supposed to be monitored and followed, and when you don’t follow those, then it opens you to potential issues. Portage is on point completely.”

Theresa Nielsen, deputy director of the Portage County Board of elections, bristles when she hears people questioning the legitimacy of elections.

“All those statements do is denigrate people’s Constitutional rights to vote,” she said. “It denigrates their trust in the election system. Those statements denigrate the people who run elections at the local state and national level. It denigrates our poll workers who only get paid $150 to sit at a polling location from 5:45 a.m. to after the last voter votes. These are people who are your neighbors, the people you see walking down the street, who treasure their constitutional right to vote enough to work with our office, to work in elections.”

Despite 62 lawsuits to overturn election results in the 2020 presidential election, no major irregularities were discovered. The lone successful lawsuit was in Pennsylvania, where a judge ruled that voters could not go back and fix their ballots if they failed to provide proper identification three days after the election. It made no difference in the outcome.

The legal losses weren’t because the courts refused to look at the evidence. Rather, Nielsen, an attorney, said those kinds of allegations reflect a misunderstanding of how the court system works.

“Before they dismiss a case, the parties must bring forward information. Whether it’s affidavits, depositions, statements, all those things we’re hearing about on TV these days, they bring that information to the court,” she said. “These are sworn statements. … And in fact, many of those courts, when they asked the attorneys for that information, the attorneys’ response was. ‘Well, there just isn’t any information yet, but we’re still looking.’ It’s like they didn’t have anything to go on.”

Election security

Nielsen and Denise Smith, who is chair of the Portage County Board of Elections, take election security seriously. 

“Portage County uses a paper ballot that you fill in just like in the old standardized tests, and when you complete it, you put it in the scanner which records it and takes a digital image,” Smith said.

The scanner is not connected to the internet or any exterior source, Smith said. Scanner data is recorded onto an encrypted flash drive provided by vetted vendors approved by the Ohio Secretary of State.

“They’re not the kind you buy for five bucks,” Nielsen said.

Each and every piece of BOE equipment is subjected to logic and accuracy testing at least three times before each election, Nielsen said. BOE staff, intentionally composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, get busy.

Correctly and incorrectly completed test ballots are run through the scanner, and the results are scrutinized for accuracy. The idea is to ensure that incorrectly completed ballots are not counted, Nielsen said.

“We send a known group of ballots through the system, and then check the results against what we know is on those ballots. This shows why the misinformation about ballots and about choices being randomly changed is completely inaccurate,” Smith said.

That testing must be completed 46 days prior to each election, because that is the deadline for military personnel and expatriots to request ballots, Nielsen said.

The management system that tabulates votes is not connected to the internet, either, Nielsen said. More to the point, none of the office workstations have internet access. The BOE has one computer that is connected only to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, and cannot be used to even search email or conduct Google searches, she said. The other two are communal, and can be used for email and internet searches.

“Those two systems, the desktops and the voter registration systems should never be connected to the internet,” Smith said. “We do not allow that.”

“We don’t want there to be any way for someone to access our desktops and somehow get into our voter registration system,” Nielsen added.

The Department of Homeland Security, or another vetted outside entity, conducts a final test.

“Every year we have a penetration test done … to try to break into our system,” Nielsen said. “We have a pen test done annually to try to break into our system. No one’s broken in.”

The Board of Elections has only one dropbox, located in the administration’s parking lot. The box is monitored 24/7 with cameras, and is dual-locked and bolted to the ground. Each morning, and more often during busy election cycles, one Democrat and one Republican unlock the box, empty it, and resecure it, Smith said.

Checks and balances

In the board office, standard practice is for one Republican and one Democrat to be assigned to all election-related tasks. They check signatures on candidates’ petitions, process requests for absentee ballots, and examine each returned ballot for accuracy.

The bipartisan nature of the Board of Elections office is intentional. There are eight full-time staff members, four Republicans and four Democrats. When the governor is a Republican, as is the case now, the BOE director is Republican and the deputy director is Democrat. The BOE chairperson is always of the opposite party as the director.

In the leadup days to an election, the board hires four part-time employees, again evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

“The whole idea is there is a check and balance on every single thing so no one party is running the election, and the election is transparent. We take those precautions seriously,” Smith said.

The Portage County BOE also relies on 516 poll workers, each of whom is paid $20 for a short training session and $120 for Election Day services. To ensure that four poll workers are available to staff each of Portage County’s 129 precincts, the BOE actually trains 600 people just in case.

Even so, unexpected labor shortages happen. When they do, the BOE jumps into high gear.

“There was an election where I knocked on poll workers’ doors who didn’t show up to work,” Nielsen recalled. “I went to their houses to find out if they were OK.”

The BOE’s employees may also fill in, though that is a last resort because each one is assigned to vital tasks that must be completed by specific times on Election Day, she said.

It’s a long day. Poll workers are on the job at 5:45 a.m. and don’t close up until 8 p.m. on Election Day, or longer if there are people in line when the polls close at 7:30.

Smith and Nielsen said they are relieved that Portage County poll workers have been free from verbal and physical harassment. The office does routinely field phone calls from people who accuse the BOE of not running elections correctly or fairly, or who allege that the voting machines are somehow rigged.

Each call affects morale, but Smith and Nielsen are confident that every staff member believes the right to vote is paramount. Office snacks help, as in cupcakes from Ravenna’s own Sunshine Cupcakes.

Exercise your right

The belligerent calls are offset by others who call to thank the BOE for running free and fair elections, Nielsen said. That helps, too.

Though primary elections are sometimes wholly or largely uncontested, Smith and Nielsen urge voters to show up anyway.

“It’s your constitutional right,” Nielsen said. “People should exercise their constitutional right to vote. Every single citizen should exercise that vote.”

Looking forward to the Nov. 8 general election, Oct. 11 is the last day to register. Anyone who turns 18 by Nov. 8 can register, Nielsen said.

Early voting starts Oct. 12.

Another piece of advice: Don’t sit out the elections for school board, trustees and city council members, they said.

“They’re not national things you hear about, but those are the ones that, for commissioner or auditor, those are the ones that really matter to you locally. Those are the people really taking care of your tax dollars,” Nielsen said. 

“Those are the people appointing the building inspector and the zoning inspector,” Smith added. “Those are the people collecting your taxes and assessing your taxes. Why wouldn’t you vote for those people, the school board? My gosh. Those people are in charge of the curriculum. You should be looking at them and knowing who they are. I think they’re more important than all the senators and presidents in the world.”

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

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