By SHEE WAI WONG
and KELSEY MISBRENER
If you are planning to vote today, don’t forget your driver’s license because someone will be watching.
These days, they like to be called “poll observers,” but in the past they were called “voter challengers.”
No matter what label is used, “they” will be at just about every voting location in Ohio making sure voters there are residents of the precinct, residents of Ohio, U.S. citizens and of legal voting age. If they challenge you, and you don’t have proof of any of this, your vote may be in jeopardy.
Though nearly all of the poll workers contacted said they were told by their appointing authority not to talk to the media, Pat Boyer-Jones of Akron, a retired nurse, said she had one goal in mind when she decided to be a poll observer. She’s there to make sure no one is discouraged from voting based on skin color or otherwise.
She is one of the 122 poll observers in Summit County.
These observers may watch the voting process, but they can’t disrupt it. If they spot an irregularity, they must leave the polling site and call the board of elections. The board then handles the issue. The role of the observers is laid out by the Ohio secretary of state.
Locally, Democrat-affiliated observers outnumber the Republican ones.
In Mahoning County, there are three Democrat poll observers and two Republican. In Columbiana County, the Democrat Party has four observers and the Republicans, two. Trumbull County has six Democrat observers and two Republican. In Summit County, the numbers have a vast difference: 119 Democrat observers compared with two Republican.
These numbers may change, however, because appointing authorities have until 4 p.m. Nov. 5 to appoint an observer.
The number of challengers seems to correlate to the numbers of registered voters in a county, as reported by the Ohio Secretary of State’s office: Columbiana, 66,775; Mahoning, 170,075; and Trumbull, 151,424.
“Their responsibility is to make sure everybody who votes has a legal right to vote,” said David Porter, professor of political science at Youngstown State University.
Voter-challenger laws have been on the Ohio books since 1803. They were changed in 1868 by the Legislature to require election officials to challenge voters who had a “distinct and visible admixture of African blood.” The state Supreme Court later overturned that requirement.
Despite that, the concept of poll observing has the stigma of racial bias and voter obstruction.
Porter said, historically, some observers would make voting so difficult that it would take 15 minutes or longer to cast a ballot.
“Poll judges simply challenged everybody and it would sort of mess up the electoral process and to suppress the vote in a particular neighborhood,” said Porter. “The concept of voter challenges “was supposed to facilitate and make sure it is a honest process.”
In 2005, after several complaints by voters and election officials, Ohio changed the rules governing challengers. They could no longer challenge voters at the polls. Instead, they could observe and then call the board of elections to report voter inconsistencies. The voter still gets to vote, but the elections board will examine that vote later to see if it is valid.
“I think the Ohio system is pretty reliable and pretty good. Other states, their challenge systems are probably too strong or too easy to challenge the vote,” said Porter.
Though voters won’t be directly challenged, they may see observers casually conversing with poll workers and gathering information on how the voting location is being run. This is allowed under the state’s directive. However, they are not allowed to enforce laws or act as advocates for voters.
Bradley Cromes, deputy director of the Portage County Board of Elections, has only worked at the board since January but has pored through the past records of poll observer activity.
“The worst thing that has happened is you may have the observer crowding the poll workers’ space,” Cromes said. “In some polling locations, it’s just a product of the space itself.”
Poll observers are appointed by political parties, groups of five or more candidates, or issue groups.
“Effectively, what the observers are doing for the authorities that appoint them is being their eyes,” Cromes said.
A.J. Atkinson contributed to this report.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).