Reporter’s notebook: Covering the elections in Portage County can be a harrowing experience

Polling stations in Hiram, Ohio. Jeremy Brown/The Portager

First, a prologue: I called the Portage County Board of Elections to find out if there are rules governing where I may stand outside polling places as a reporter. Turns out I can stand anywhere, just not inside. Good to know.

So I started my day outside Silver Creek Church in Aurora. No lines, and half the people exiting from voting agreed to speak with me. The other half said they had to get back to work.

Suddenly a poll worker stormed out of the building and angrily informed me that I must stand outside the 100-foot perimeter marked by small American flags. I told him I am a reporter and that the county board of elections said I am within my rights to stand where I was. He told me he had spoken with the deputy director as well and again ordered me to move or he would throw me out.

I looked for the perimeter flags but saw none. And I know he’s wrong, but the man was causing a scene. A resident passing by even contacted my editor to let him know what was happening to me. A nice man who had witnessed the confrontation paced off approximately 100 feet for me, and I moved into the parking lot.

However, it’s difficult to engage people from 100 feet away, so I soon left.

Next stop was the Ravenna Elks club. Voters trickled in. I tried to engage one elderly woman, but she couldn’t remember that there was a county-wide issue (the health district levy) and told me she didn’t remember what was on the ballot. “I just put down anything,” she said.

Two of the Ravenna charter amendments — there are five of them — seemed to be evenly split, but I noticed that everybody favored clarifying the mayor’s responsibilities and reviewing city employee salaries every year. Only one person, an elderly man, said city council should not be permitted to hold virtual meetings. “They should be in person,” he declared. In the end, all of the amendments passed.

At least no one accosted me.

No such luck at the Kent American Legion hall. I stood outside and began to speak with voters. This time I got two poll workers, both telling me that I must be outside the 100-foot perimeter. They also gave me grief for not wearing a press badge that identifies the news organization for which I work, but they were polite and calm this time.

I asked them to call the board of elections office, which they did in front of me and were informed I was allowed to be there. They told me that if voters don’t want to talk, I was not to push the issue. I wouldn’t have anyway.

Across the parking lot, where there were perimeter flags, I saw a woman with various political pins all over her shirt. She glanced at me and repeatedly screamed into her cellphone, “They’re breaking the law!” I tried to ignore her, and she eventually went to her car.

Soon a truck pulling a trailer completely covered with anti-Democrat slogans pulled in and parked right next to her car. Next thing I know, a huge man with a shaved head and a skin-tight black “Defund Dems” T-shirt walked up to me. He approached closely, puffed up his chest, flexed his considerable muscles and asked me what I’m doing.

I know I don’t have to answer him, but I calmly tell him I’m a reporter doing exit polls. He deflated and strutted off down the sidewalk in front of the Legion Hall, then rounded the corner. I told the poll workers about the incident, and they said they would be keeping an eye out.

I am surprised that every Kent person I spoke with voted in favor of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. “Let them have it,” one elderly woman said.

I spoke with a few more people and then decided to go home. I had been confronted by two sets of poll workers and unsuccessfully intimidated by an enormous voter. All in a day’s work!

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