Ohio’s pollworkers left in the dark throughout lengthy Monday turmoil

By: - March 17, 2020 1:00 am
A voting location

File photo of a voting location from Wikimedia Commons by Tom Arthur.

The confusion set in early for the pollworkers in Williams County. 

It was a little after 3 p.m., with the last day of early voting all wrapped up ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. Then someone came in with news: Did you hear? The governor is postponing the election! 

That wasn’t exactly true, as they’d later learn, but the announcement caught the Northwest Ohio pollworkers off-guard. One of them called the Secretary of State’s office for guidance. No answer. Was the election on or off? They weren’t sure, and time was running out: they were supposed to set up equipment that night ahead of polls opening at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. 

As the state government worked to postpone Tuesday’s election the back-and-forth ended with top health official Dr. Amy Acton declaring a state of emergency pollworkers were largely left in the dark. 

The Ohio Capital Journal interviewed more than a dozen pollworkers around the state during Monday’s lengthy developments. The conversations paint a picture of mass confusion and radio silence from elections officials.

One thing is clear: had Ohio gone through with the election, many precincts around the state would have been unprepared to handle the task of proper voting management. In some cases, they may not have opened to voters at all.  

How it started

At their daily afternoon press conference regarding the latest COVID-19 concerns, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced plans to seek a postponement of the election via the courts. 

Scene from the jury box in Judge Richard Frye’s courtroom Monday, as state Rep. Niraj Antani testifies in opposition to a lawsuit filed at the behest of Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose seeking to postpone Tuesday’s election.

This led to the first major misstep: county boards of elections around Ohio did not wait to see how a judge would rule. It was assumed the judge would rule in favor of postponement. 

So, thousands of pollworkers around the state were told their services were no longer needed for Monday night and Tuesday. 

The surprising Franklin County court decision was handed down a little after 7 p.m., announcing that the election would still take place. 

County elections officials did not react quickly to this development. In fact, the Franklin County Board of Elections sent out texts and emails to pollworkers after the judge’s ruling wrongly telling them the election was postponed. It would take another 90 minutes for Franklin County’s many pollworkers to get the reversal message that the election was still on. 

An evening of chaos

The hours after the judge’s order were chaotic for pollworkers in counties all around Ohio.

The election was on at that point, but many received no follow-up instruction to report for Monday set-up or Tuesday work after all. 

“This pollworker was told to NOT report for set-up tonight,” Kate Mock Elliott said in Hamilton County. “Tomorrow could be messy.”

In Wyandot County, pollworker Brandon Mooney heard about the judge’s order and called his precinct leader for guidance. 

“I was the one who gave them the news,” Mooney said. “They didn’t know till I told them.”

Melanie Farkas arrived at her Delaware County polling location to find the doors locked. She eventually got a text to report at 5:30 a.m. the next morning to set up — only an hour before polls were set to open.

Up near Toledo, Sarah Carter and a handful of other pollworkers showed up Monday evening to prepare their location, but the polling supervisor was a no-show. The group waited for a bit, then left. 

“Unsure if I’m supposed to show up tomorrow,” Carter said. “No one has contacted me.”

The Capital Journal heard of stories like this all over the state: elections workers in cities big and small trying to simply understand if the election was happening or not, and if it was, how best to prepare. 

Said one Columbus voting location manager: “I’m still unclear as to what is happening tomorrow morning, and I have the key to get in the building.”

This voting sticker, designed by student Emily Legg, was chosen in May to be the new sticker in Ohio. Photo courtesy the Secretary of State’s Office.

Some hope? 

At last, pollworkers in Williams County were able to get in touch with their county elections officials. The pollworkers returned to their precinct Monday night at about 9 p.m. They were told to wait for county officials to drop off elections equipment to be set up that night.

It would be a long wait: there were 26 Williams County precincts in total along the route. 

Michele Tinker, one of several experienced pollworkers at the precinct, said while she waited that it would not take long to get the precinct ready once the equipment came in. Only about 30 minutes, Tinker guessed, since they’d have to wait until Tuesday morning to get the voter machines ready. 

“We’re all here,” Tinker said with pride, “and we’ll all be here tomorrow morning.”

Elsewhere, though, pollworkers remained unsure. One in Trumbull County said their precinct supervisor insisted the election was still off. Another described in frustrating detail having signed up recently to fill a pollworker shortage, undergoing three hours of training on Saturday, just to be left hanging all Monday while they followed the news reports. 

The end

At long last came the final declaration on Monday: the state would declare a health emergency and keep the polls closed on Tuesday. 

It was welcome news for Jayne Starkey. It had been a long, tiring day for the 78-year-old pollworker from Fayette County. She’d tried earlier in the evening, with little luck, to tell her supervisor about the judge’s ruling. 

Now it was 10 p.m. and the governor’s last word had been announced.

“Oh my gosh,” Starkey said of hearing she could stay home on Tuesday. “I have to say I’m pleased. I’m 78 and a little worried about getting exposed.”

The morning

The last twist kept the Williams County pollworkers, predictably, in the dark one more time.

“In case you are wondering,” Tinker wrote in an email to the Capital Journal, “it’s 4:45 am and our Williams County Board of Election has not been notified the election has been postponed. Poll workers preparing to show up and open the polls.”

Then came one more email at 5:25 a.m., five minutes before pollworkers were set to arrive had the election taken place.

“We have JUST been told not to report for work.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.