| The Columbus Dispatch
Outside vendors hired to help run Ohio elections have been blamed for mistakenly scheduling voter registrations to be purged and for slowing down the distribution of mail-in ballots during the past year.
But state law provides little in the way of oversight for those vendors, and elections in Ohio are “decentralized,” left mostly to local boards of elections to manage.
That means decisions about who to hire to print ballots, manage voter registration rolls and other outsourcing of elections administration are made individually in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.
“There is scrutiny to the extent that they’re public agencies that are conducting a public bid,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. “Local boards of elections need to conduct due diligence when they’re considering their vendors just like any public company or agency would do.”
But most of the state and federal oversight is reserved for voting equipment providers, and not the vendors that have had problems over the past year.
The Ohio Board of Voting Machine Examiners, made up of county elections officials and a representative from the secretary of state, certifies the equipment voters use to cast ballots. County boards can select from the list of approved vendors, which must meet the board’s standards and be certified at the federal level.
The board also certifies vendors for electronic pollbooks used to find voter registrations at polling places.
So far, though, that is where its authority ends. Last year, the Ohio Senate passed Senate Bill 194 that would give the board power to certify voter registration systems after a vendor mistakenly included 1,600 eligible voters on a list of about 235,000 who were scheduled to be purged.
Those voters were removed from the list before their registrations were canceled. But the mistake by Omaha-based Elections Systems & Software led to the passing of the bill, and errors with past purges prompted Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to call for a centralized voter registration system that his office would manage.
The Ohio House has not voted on Senate Bill 194. Asked if the bill would be considered in the upcoming lame duck session, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Bob Cupp said “the bill will continue through the committee process.”
A third-party vendor also has been at the center of problems delivering absentee ballots for the general election since the start of early voting on Oct. 6.
The Summit County Board of Elections terminated a printing contract with Cleveland-based MidWest Direct after the vendor was slow to deliver absentee ballots to about 95,000 voters who requested them before the start of early voting.
The company had contracts with 20 Ohio counties and received thousands more orders for absentee ballots than originally anticipated as more voters requested to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Summit County elected to take the printing and ballot-stuffing in-house, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. MidWest’s problems also delayed delivery of ballots in Montgomery and Butler counties, according to the Dayton Daily News.
The Toledo Blade reported that the Lucas County Board of Elections could not verify that MidWest had sent about 70,000 absentee ballots to voters that had requested them.
Several counties began using MidWest after it successfully printed ballots for Cuyahoga County in a previous election, Ockerman said.
LaRose spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan wrote in an email that the secretary of state’s office would conduct “a full review into how print vendors are selected and determine the best path forward to ensure they’re held accountable to Ohio voters” after the November election.
Voting system vendors have “preferred printers” that they work with in Ohio, giving them specifications such as paper weight to work with their equipment, Sheehan said. While the voting systems are approved by the state board, the print vendors are not.
Vendors haven’t exclusively been responsible for problems during the first wave of absentee voting in Ohio this year. For example, the Delaware County Board of Elections sent duplicate ballots to several hundred voters.
In Franklin County, the board worked with its vendor to determine how a setting was disabled on automatic envelope-stuffing equipment, resulting in nearly 50,000 voters receiving the wrong absentee ballot. But the vendor was not responsible for the error.
Franklin County Elections Director Ed Leonard said the board follows the same process to select vendors that other public agencies use for procurement. It defines specifications, puts the work out for bid, and asks the vendor to show whether it has the capacity to handle the work, he said.
Last year, the Brennan Center for Justice released a report that called for greater federal oversight of voter system vendors because of security concerns and the threat of cyber attacks meant to disrupt U.S. elections.
Among the report’s recommendations were a new federal certification program under the Elections Assistance Commission, development of best practices for elections vendors and enforcement of federal guidelines for voting systems.
But the report points out that vendors work on other parts of election infrastructure as well, including voter registration systems and ballot printing.
More oversight is needed for “anything that is critical to determining the eligibility of people to vote or tabulating and counting of votes,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s election reform program.
“It’s hard to imagine unwinding the role that private companies play in American elections,” he said.
The nonprofit Ohio Voter Project, which has investigated the state’s purge lists, has advocated for investigating elections vendors to ensure that ballots are delivered in a timely manner and to protect vote tallies.
“Given that vendors practically run the voting in many counties it is our position that every one of them should be investigated,” said Steven Tingley Hock, founder of the project.
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