Athens County received new voting equipment last week, but instead of being stored in a county-owned building on Campbell Street, as planned, the machines were moved uptown.
Athens County Board of Elections (BOE) staff have said that certain “tabulating” equipment used to process ballots should be stored in the main elections office. For this reason, the equipment is now being stored at the elections office in the county annex at 15 S. Court St., BOE Deputy Director Penny Brooks said Friday.
The new equipment, she added, has created space issues in that suite of offices on the first floor of the annex.
The BOE voted 3-1 late last November to move the main election office on South Court Street to the former ATCO building at 21 Campbell St., a block off of Stimson Avenue, citing limited space as the main reason for needing new space.
BOE Chair Kate McGuckin cast the sole dissenting vote. She and other Athens area residents have argued that relocating the office away from uptown could deter early voting among Ohio University students.
BOE Director Debbie Quivey and Brooks have warned that the arrival of more than $670,000 worth of new voting equipment, paid for by the state, would necessitate a new office space, as there would be no space to store the new machines in the uptown office. Those warnings apparently have come to fruition: Much of the space used to process ballots, store e-poll books and hold BOE meetings and in-person early voting is now occupied by ballot-reading machines.
The Athens County Commissioners have yet to make a decision regarding the BOE’s request to move to the building on Campbell Street. Commissioner Lenny Eliason confirmed in an email Friday that the board is still evaluating options for where the elections office may be best located.
Meanwhile, repairs are under way to prepare the former ATCO building for use, and the future tenant of the space remains to be determined.
County Commissioner Charlie Adkins had been working to prepare a room in the former ATCO building that could store the new voting equipment, ensuring that the appropriate lock system was provided and that the room would be large enough to accommodate the equipment.
Brooks said Friday that the equipment was delivered to the ATCO space as planned, but once the company assembled the machines, the BOE staff determined they would be more secure in the main office uptown.
Originally, Brooks said she and Quivey planned to store the unassembled equipment in the ATCO building and then have it assembled later when they had more clarity about the future of the BOE’s permanent location. Unfortunately, the company who supplied the equipment, ES&S, did not agree to that plan. Only after the machines had been assembled and tested could they be signed over to Athens County, and only then would ES&S receive payment from the state.
“I’ve been here 47 years, and we’ve never stored tabulating equipment outside of the office,” Brooks said Friday. She also explained that storage of equipment is outlined in the BOE’s Administrative Plan for 2018, which was approved by the BOE, and states that vote tabulation equipment will be stored in the main elections office.
“Our only option was to get it put together down there and bring it up here,” Brooks said.
Eliason said in his email that the Commissioners were notified about the change of plans, but Brooks said the decision was ultimately hers and Quivey’s to make.
Brooks and Quivey have adamantly expressed to BOE members concerns that the tabulation equipment should be stored in the BOE offices to ensure that the devices are not tampered with. At a meeting March 27, Quivey and Brooks also voiced concerns about the room in the ATCO building, including doubts about the ability of the room to be temperature controlled (which is one of the state’s requirements for storing voting equipment), the type of lock used to secure the doors, and the presence of windows in the room. The Athens Messenger reported last week that the room prepared at the ATCO building has “three large windows.”
The county received two large DS450 machines, used for processing ballots in the main office, and 70 DS200 machines, used to process ballots at polling locations. The machines are being stored in multiple different rooms of the BOE office suite. Early in-person voting, which is typically held in the same room where the BOE meets monthly, is being held in a nook in the hallway.
“We’ve had to do some shuffling,” Brooks said. “...We have no room.”
Most of the old voting machines are being stored in the space at the former ATCO building while the county awaits official confirmation from the Ohio Secretary of State that the machines can be recycled.
For now, some of the old equipment is still being used to process primary-election votes, but the county will have to begin using the new equipment in November, Brooks explained. BOE staff must still test the machines and prepare them for the general election. Brooks noted, however, that there’s nowhere to plug in the machines to test them or set them up at the uptown office.
“This election, it’s small, so we can handle this one,” Brooks said of the May 7 primary, which only includes two issues: a First Ward race for Athens City Council and a levy issue for the Alexander Local School District (each of which is limited to a particular group of voters).
Brooks said for the primary election, about seven people will be working in a small bedroom-sized space to process votes, but during a general election as many as 15 people will be processing votes, and all will need to squeeze into the same small room if the BOE main office is not moved to a larger space.
While the Commissioners have been evaluating options for the future of the former ATCO building, they have also been working to address issues with the county annex building in order to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Brett Harbage, ADA coordinator for the Ohio Secretary of State, last year inspected the current BOE offices, on the first floor, and found more than 20 compliance issues with the space. He offered his opinion in December of last year, and in March of this year via email to Commissioner Adkins, saying that he does not believe the building can be made accessible before the November 2019 election.
The Commissioners voted on April 2 to contract with local architect Dick Planisek, who has said he thinks he can fix compliancy issues with the parking lot behind the uptown building, as well as the other issues listed in Harbage’s report. Both Commissioners Adkins and Chris Chmiel have said that the county building needs to be made ADA compliant whether or not the BOE office is relocated.
Brooks said she is “really disappointed” that the BOE office’s needs were not addressed in time for the arrival of new equipment.
“We asked for the space in July. We said this was coming,” Brooks said. “…We can’t function in a general election in this capacity. We just can’t.... Not trying to be petty or anything, but we’re in a bind.”