Deputy director of the Portage County Board of Elections discusses mail-in voting

Terrie Nielsen, deputy director of Portage County Board of Elections.

Terrie Nielsen, deputy director of Portage County Board of Elections.

Much of public life has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic and exercising the right to vote is no exception. With the general election less than two months away, voters are increasingly relying on mail-in ballots to cast their votes.

Deputy director of the Portage County Board of Election, Terrie Nielsen, spoke to me about the mail-in voting process. She addressed the security concerns around mail-in ballots and also opened up about some of the challenges Portage County may have to face.  

Nielsen has been with the Portage County Board of Elections for a little over five years. Her responsibilities include working on all issues that appear on the ballot, budgeting, personnel and several other projects with the other director. Nielsen graduated from Case Western Reserve School of Law.

Q: Is there any difference between absentee ballots and mail-in ballots? Are they interchangeable?

A: So, in the state of Ohio, we really have three ways that you can vote. There are two absentee options. All voting before Election Day is considered absentee. You can request an absentee ballot now, or you can come into our office and vote. Early voting for this election starts on Oct. 6 and runs to Nov. 2. We also will have voting at the polling locations. So absentee voting and voting by mail are really the same thing here in Ohio.

Q: Will there only be one specific drop box location? Is there just one per county or?

A: Right now, the secretary of state has indicated that we can only have one ballot drop box per county. Ours happens to be located in the parking lot where our office is located, 449 South Meridian St, Ravenna. That drop box is bolted to the ground and is locked. It’s being monitored by a camera at all times. There is a move to allow boards of elections to have drop boxes at other locations in the state. I believe there’s current litigation regarding that issue, but that matter has not been resolved. When people request an absentee ballot by mail, there are a couple of ways that they can return them. They can be placed in the mail. They must, however, be postmarked no later than Monday, Nov. 2. Or they can be brought to the board of elections no later than 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Q: So, you said there’s been a move to request another location. Is this a county by county request?

A: It’s a statewide request. The lawsuit was filed by the Democratic Party. There are many counties that would be in favor of having multiple drop boxes. I think one of the potential difficulties is going to be, since we are so close to the date of the election, is obtaining boxes; getting them and finding a location. For Portage County, we would probably put one in the northern tier of the county and another one in the southern tier, but we would have to first get the boxes. And usually it’s a six to eight-week lead time to get the box. They’re kind of expensive, so it’s not like you could just order them and have them on hand. Then you have to find a location that either has a camera surveillance or will allow you to have camera surveillance put up by that building or whatever.  

Q: What is the rationale for having more locations?

A: I think the concern is that there may be voters who are unable to pay postage and the drop box is an alternative to that. The secretary of state’s office also requested, I think it’s the state controlling board, to use some of his own funds to pay for postage to return that balance. That won’t be decided on for a couple of weeks. If postage is being paid, the extra drop box won’t be as important. However, you’re just going to run into people who procrastinate and wait till the last minute to request their ballot. If you don’t get it postmarked by the second and you need to get it in, you can’t drop it off in a polling location, you have to bring it to our office. So, for those people who procrastinate, and if we had alternate drop boxes, that would be an opportunity for them to get their ballot in. Otherwise they have to drive it to our office and drop it in our drop box in the parking lot.

Q: Would you say one of the biggest challenges will be just having enough labor to facilitate all of the ballots and make it all work?

A: I think we have a pretty good crew of people who have worked with us year in and year out. So, we have four ladies who we call our full-time part timers. They know that I usually give them a date. For this election I said from Sept. 11 until the day of the election, if you could essentially clear your calendars and they are very good about doing that. And they were very good about coming in, you know, two or three weeks early. We also add additional people because those four ladies cannot process everything that comes in and goes out of here. Some days we’ll have five people, some days we will have up to 20 people depending upon where we are in the process.

I think my biggest concern right now is having enough poll workers on election day. We probably lost at least half of our poll workers because of the virus and have to replace each and every one of them. If we’re unable to do so, we’ll be forced with the terrible task of having to potentially close polling locations and consolidating them which leads to longer lines.

Q: And usually, how many poll workers would you have?

A: We have 129 precincts. We need four people, two Democrats and two Republicans for each of those precincts. So that’s 516. We always, for each [party], like to have a hundred alternatives, so a hundred Republicans and a hundred Democrats, which brings it up to 700 plus people we’re looking at. That’s a lot of people and we have lots of people who have done it year in and year out. We’ve had some people who have done it for 15, 20 years but those are also people that are higher in age.

Q: Could you describe the procedures enacted to ensure mail-in ballots are a secure way of voting and that people can rest assured?

A: I’ve heard a lot of different stories about why they think things are not secure. So before, when you send in your application to our office, first of all, it’s an application process. We have to receive an application, wait, and double check to make sure that the address matches. We look you up on our voter registration, your address has to match, your date of birth has to match, your form of identification has to match, and then we match your signature. There are all of those things that we check and if there’s any problem with any of those, we will get in touch with the voter.

Once you have ballots printed, a Democrat and Republican sit at a table. One person has the applications, the other person has the ballots. And on each of the applications and on each of the ID envelopes will be information that has the application number, the ballot stub number, the style of ballot and the person’s name. So, I’m making sure that Chris, who our computer has assigned to receive ballot number 10002, is actually getting that ballot. So, those get checked. We put them in the envelopes. We do have to send them over to the mailroom for postage but that is done after everything is sealed in the envelope.

Q: What about when you get the ballots back?

A: When they come back to us, we have to make sure that the ID envelope is filled out correctly. So again, we’re checking name, address, date of birth, whatever form of identification they’ve provided and signature. If that information is not current then again, we’re getting in touch with the voter to make sure that they provide us with the correct information. Only if the information is correct, do we then open the envelope, the ID envelope that contains the ballot. Again, a Democrat and a Republican sit down, one person has the ID envelope, the ballot is removed from the ID envelope and handed to a person of the other party. They read the stub number and that stub number has to match with something. If it doesn’t then that ballot doesn’t count.

Q: You mentioned applications having to be processed before ballots are sent and I was wondering when someone’s application is approved, how fast can they expect to get their ballot?

A: Well, for right now, we can’t send anything out until Oct. 6. Oct. 6 is the first day we can mail ballots. And it’s our hope that every application that we receive now up until Oct. 5, all of those people will get a ballot delivered to them on Oct. 6.. We will do our very best to do a one day turn around. So, by that I mean, if your application arrives here in our office on Monday that your ballot would go out on Tuesday. Keep in mind, however, that the post office tells us three to five business days for first class mail. So, even though the law allows people to request an absentee ballot up until noon the Saturday before the election, that is not what people should do.

Because if I mail you a ballot on Saturday, I think that’s the 31 of October, you’re never going to get the ballot before the [November] third. I mean, that’s just crazy so people should plan to do it now. The more we can get done; the quicker people will get their ballots.

Q: For those who are planning to vote, what do you think they should consider? I assume not procrastinating is a big one.

A: Yes, that is probably number one. I would encourage everybody to vote by mail. There’s no reason not to vote by mail. I’ve heard a lot of arguments about it like I don’t trust it. We’ve never had anything happen in Portage County that should lead any voter in Portage County to think that anything other than our absolute 100% commitment to our job and security; is going to end on election day. There is nothing nefarious going on here.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: Well, for sure, I want to emphasize we’re looking for poll workers. So, Chris, if you don’t have class on a Tuesday, we’ll be happy to have you or any other student. Especially now that much of things are going to be virtual, especially as school gets, you know for whatever reason Kent State has to close and they send people home. Think about volunteering and being a precinct election official. We do pay so it’s not entirely volunteer. Then the other thing is that people should really use our website. There are things that you can find on our website, all of our hours, absentee voting, the absentee ballot application. You can track your absentee ballot, application and ballot, on our website.

Contact Chris Ramos at [email protected].