Editor's note: a previous version of this story stated that the company ES&S is based in Omaha, Nevada. The company is actually based in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Athens County Board of Elections is making progress in its process of purchasing new voting equipment with state funds, in accordance with a state of Ohio mandate issued earlier this year.
“Our next step is to have a quote done and notify the secretary of state,” said Athens County Board of Elections Director Debbie Quivey in an interview Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the need for a secure place to store the new equipment remains as the Athens County Commissioners have yet to approve or reject the Board of Elections’ request to move from its current uptown site to another location.
Some residents, including Ohio University students and progressive activists, have spoken against the proposed move to the former ATCO building at 21 Campbell St., just off Stimson Avenue. Opponents of the move argue that it could deter Ohio University students and people who work uptown from voting early, or potentially at all.
Elections board officials, however, have said that a move is necessary, as the current location does not have space for adequate storage of the new voting equipment, which the state is requiring and paying for the county to purchase. They maintain that the ATCO site is accessible and relatively close to campus, as well as being ADA-compliant, whereas the South Court Street site is not rated as accessible to people with disabilities.
The Ohio legislature over the summer approved a measure to supply funds to county boards of elections across the state for the purpose of purchasing new voting equipment, as much of the state’s equipment is more than a decade old.
About $114.5 million will be distributed to Ohio's 88 county elections boards ahead of the 2020 presidential election, according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer article published in June.
For those counties with between 20,000 and 99,999 registered voters, the legislation allows a base allocation of $250,000 for new voting equipment, plus an additional amount determined by the number of voters registered in each county.
According to Quivey, Athens County has 45,000 registered voters and was allotted $524,891 in addition to the $250,000 base amount, making a total of $774,891 of state funds to purchase the new voting equipment.
“We are mandated; we have to change equipment,” Quivey told the county Commissioners at a meeting last Tuesday. “Our equipment is 12 years old… and we’re starting to have problems with our equipment.”
Quivey mentioned at the Commissioners meeting the recount for the county auditor’s race last month, which had to be done as a result of a jam in one of the county’s ballot-processing machines. In an interview this Tuesday, Quivey said that jams are not uncommon with the current machines, though they don’t occur frequently.
The county has taken good care of its current equipment, she said, adding that the machines are checked over once a year by an inspector from the machine’s manufacturer, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the Omaha, Nebraska-based company that the Athens County Board has been using for a long time. Quivey said an ES&S inspector has said that the county’s equipment is the best kept in the state.
The problem, Quivey said, is that the equipment is outdated. “Stop and think how much a computer would change in 12 years,” she said.
The new machines “are more efficient because they have a better design,” Quivey said. “...They’re more lightweight… They scan faster.” The new machines, made by the same company, are one piece, as opposed to the two-piece design of the current machines, so there are no issues with connecting the parts, which Quivey said has caused problems in the past. The ballot boxes on the bottom of the machines are made of plastic rather than metal, making them easier to transport.
Each county was able to select its own equipment, Quivey said, so Athens County was able to stick with its preferred company and paper ballot-reading equipment. The county will not have to supply any funds for the new machines, which Quivey has said will amount to nearly $300,000 worth of new technology, which is the primary reason the board is seeking a new location: the upgrade creates a need for safe, adequate storage.
“These (machines) cost $4,700 a piece,” Quivey told the commissioners last week. “We’re going to buy 60 of those.”
The county will also purchase more than 25 new ADA accessible machines, called “Express Vote” machines, that offer major improvements to the current ADA-approved devices, which Quivey described as “bulky” and heavier.
“The new ones, they are a fourth of the size, they’re more lightweight. They are just wonderful,” said Quivey, who said she likes to use the machines herself due to vision troubles (anyone can use the machines, though they are a requirement under the ADA).
ACCESSIBILITY IS ANOTHER ISSUE with the uptown Athens Board of Elections location, as Quivey and others pointed out at the meeting last week. The county annex building, and therefore the current BOE office, is not ADA accessible, and the county has yet to determine whether or not it would be feasible to make the necessary updates to meet ADA requirements.
Quivey said Tuesday that an ADA coordinator from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office already has performed an evaluation of the current building, as was requested by the county Commissioners last week. She said the county is still waiting to learn the results, as the coordinator is still working on a report.
A number of Athens area residents appealed to the county Commissioners last week to reject the proposed relocation, arguing that Ohio University students will be less likely to travel to the suggested new location due to its distance from much of campus. Some alleged “voter suppression.” After hearing concerns from students, the OU Student Senate passed a resolution last Wednesday evening in opposition to the move on the grounds that it “will likely hinder already low voter turnout rates for students ages 18 to 24 years old,” the resolution states.
Jonathan Schlosser, Student Senate Commissioner of Governmental Affairs, who proposed the resolution, said in a text message last Friday that he introduced the measure “due to the fact that a move will decrease student turnout in our democracy.”
Schlosser said that students have reached out to him and have attended the Commissioners meeting “expressing that the move will decrease visibility of the Board of Elections.” From his own involvement in voter registration efforts over the summer, he said he knows that a key part of engaging students to register to vote is an awareness of where the BOE office is located.
“When asking students about the move to Campbell Street, the overwhelming response given to me was ‘where is that,’” Schlosser added.
“In an age where statewide officials are making it harder to vote, local government should be doing everything in their power to make it as accessible as possible,” he said.
Student Senate also asked in its resolution that the existing county building be updated to meet ADA requirements, if the BOE remains in that location.
NOT EVERYONE OPPOSES the move, however, as evidenced by a comment in the “Athens Voice” column published in the Dec. 10 issue of The NEWS:
“The county owns the former ATCO building, thus no rental fee for the Court Street voting location,” the comment states. “Students have transportation; it would be convenient for persons not to have to seek parking on Court Street or worry about the meter expiring while at the Board of Elections. Why is everything geared to the students in this town?”
Others in comments attached to The Athens NEWS Facebook posting of the Dec. 6 article on the issue argued that many people who live outside of Athens are wary of coming uptown because of traffic and parking issues. The Campbell Street location would be easier for them, they said.
Student Senate, however, argued that OU students make up a large portion of the voting population in Athens County, and making it more difficult for them to vote erodes democracy.
Still, many residents, including the commenter quoted above, have argued that students shouldn’t be allowed to vote on certain ballot issues that wouldn’t affect temporary residents. Such a complaint was made in the election last month in regards to the Athens City Schools capital improvements levy, which was passed in voting precincts within city limits but largely rejected by school district precincts outside of the city.
Based on an analysis of election results broken down by precinct, the levy did very well in precincts dominated by Ohio University students. Though it is difficult to say with certainty how many students voted and how they voted, compared to non-student residents in the school district, general knowledge of the Athens area and a precinct map from the Board of Elections website suggest that student-populous precincts favored the levy more than those likely to contain fewer students.
There’s no legal foundation to prohibit short-term residents who otherwise are qualified to vote, including college students, from voting where they live for most of the year.
The Athens County Commissioners have yet to decide whether to approve the Board of Elections’ proposed move or reject it. (If they do not approve the move, the Board of Elections is one of the few entities, aside from county judges, that could challenge the county in court.) The commissioners agreed to table the conversation until after they complete the budgeting process.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason confirmed in an email Wednesday morning that the county will be having budget hearings over the next two weeks. The Commissioners will need to have a temporary budget in place by Dec. 31 and a permanent one by March 31, 2019, he said.