July 24, 2016

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Election monitors criticized by Medina County officials

MEDINA — Medina County elections officials say new guidelines are needed governing the behavior of the growing ranks of independent poll observers.

Donald Baker, president of the county Board of Elections, said ­the biggest problem voters had to contend with on Election Day was the 117 registered observers sent out by political parties and political interest groups to monitor the election.

Carol Lawler

Baker, one of two Democrats on the four-member board, raised the issue at a two-hour meeting Tuesday that reviewed how well the county handled the Nov. 6 presidential election.

Elections board Director Carol Lawler reported receiving complaints from poll workers and voters about the number and behavior of the observers.

“In a lot of cases they were hovering and making poll workers and voters uncomfortable,” Lawler told the board.

Lawler said that on the Saturday before the Tuesday election, 24 official poll observers had been certified by political parties.

But Lawler said observers can be certified within 24 hours of the election. By Monday, their numbers had swelled to 117.

“We were prepared for 24, not 117,” Lawler said.

Baker said he witnessed instances where poll workers were hesitant to rein in overeager observers.

“There was one observer giving me problems, and I was five minutes away from having her arrested,” Baker told the board.

Board members agreed to ask Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to issue better guidelines on how to handle poll observers.

This year, the county board required all poll observers to stay three feet away from the tables to cut down on congestion and confusion for voters.

“That was just something we did, but we need enhanced guidelines,” Baker said.

Republicans on the board agreed. Board member Teresa Cotman said she saw voters were uncomfortable by some of the actions of poll workers.

“There’s observers there hovering with iPhones and voters are wondering, ‘Who is this person asking my name?’ ” Cotman said.

While poll observers representing established political parties are nothing new, this year’s presidential election saw an increase in independent groups with observers looking for voter fraud.

The Ohio Voter Integrity Project, a local branch of the nationwide True the Vote Initiative, offered training for poll observers hoping to identify and stop voter fraud.

Husted had been scheduled to speak at a True the Vote summit in Ohio in August, but withdrew his name days before the event.

Groups like True the Vote urged poll observers to question precinct workers if they thought any election laws were being violated.

“When (poll observers) say to workers, ‘I have a form and we need that number from you,’ we need our workers to say, ‘I don’t care,’ ” said Bill Heck, the senior Republican on the elections board.

Heck said poll worker training next year should emphasize that poll observers are expected to speak up only when they believe an election law has been violated.

“Every little group will train their own observers, but we need to have guidelines to say this is how we expect you to act,” Heck said.

In other action Tuesday, the board discussed ways of improving procedures used on election night.

“I’d like to see a documented flow of activities,” Heck said. “Who owns it and when does it need to be completed.”

The final unofficial results were not posted on the board’s website until after 2 a.m. Wednesday.

On the day after the election, Lawler said the cause of the delay was the large number of paper ballots received that had to be scanned and counted.
Those ballots included mailed-in absentee ballots and paper ballots that were requested by voters who didn’t want to use the computerized voting machines.

Board members said the Nov. 6 election went as smoothly as possible considering it was new territory for the two senior staff members.

Neither Lawler nor Carol Gurney, the deputy director, had presided over a presidential election before. They replaced Jan Pilat and Sue Strasser, who retired last year.

“Considering our director and deputy director retired less than 24 months ago … you did an exemplary job,” Cotman told Gurney and Lawler.

Baker pointed out that the issue of poll observers was not unique to Medina County.

“In fairness, I think every county in the state was behind in being prepared for that,” he said.

Following the two-hour public session, the board met in executive session to discuss personnel issues. Baker would not elaborate. Earlier in the public session he indicated the board would be discussing conducting personnel evaluations.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.

Loren Genson About Loren Genson

Loren Genson was The Gazette's senior reporter. From August 2012 through September 2015, she covered Brunswick city and state and national government. To contact The Gazette, call the managing editor at (330) 721-4065.