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Ohio election workers crack the whip to validate petitions for November ballot issues




Field staffers for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol deliver boxes containing petitions with 222,198 signatures to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, July 5, 2023, at the loading dock of the Office of the Ohio Secretary of State, 180 E Broad St in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Now that he’s retired, Indiana Jones might want to volunteer as an election worker.

While he won’t get into any car chases or fist fights, his expertise at deciphering hieroglyphics would be put to good use validating signatures on ballot petitions.

At least that was my experience last week as I worked the night shift at the Franklin County Board of Elections. Poring over the petitions to put abortion rights and legalizing marijuana on the November ballot left me bleary-eyed but satisfied that there’s no monkey business going on behind the scenes.

After Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights and the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted their petitions to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office in early July, those petitions were sent to the counties’ bipartisan boards of election. The boards were then tasked with verifying the signatures  — by comparing them to the boards’ computerized voter files. If the signatures didn’t match, the boards would cull them from the list.

Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights turned in 709,786 voter signatures from around the state, far more than the required 413,487 signatures. The campaign said that Franklin County had a whopping 82,509 signatures.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, meanwhile, said that it collected 223,233 voter signatures, more than the required 124,046 signatures, with the greatest number of signatures, 50,004, coming from Franklin County.

With numbers like that, it was little wonder that Franklin County’s board sent out word to election workers that they were needed to help validate signatures. So great was the need, in fact, that the board would have a day shift and a night shift of paid volunteers working seven days a week beginning July 8, in order to meet the validation deadline of July 20.

“This is a really, really big project,” said David Payne, the Franklin County Board of Elections Deputy Director, at the training session for election workers. “We can’t thank you people enough.”

Much more understated was Jeff Mackey, the Petitions & Campaign Finance Manager at Franklin County Board of Elections. Soft spoken and bespectacled, Mackey took us through the procedure of validating signatures, then matter-of-factly said — to some gasps in the room — that we could expect only about half of the signatures to be valid.

In the six days of validating signatures that followed, it turned out that — like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade — in making his prediction Mackey had, well, chosen wisely.

On the first night of work, I joined about a dozen other volunteers in one room, and another dozen or more in a room next door, in laboriously checking signatures and addresses against voting records. We quickly realized that there were quite a few people who had changed their addresses and then apparently forgot to update the election board’s records.

So, even though their signatures were a match, they weren’t valid for the petition.

We also noticed a difference in petitions that had been circulated by volunteers and those that had been circulated by paid workers. At least on the first night, the petitions that were circulated by workers who had been paid by a company in Texas were often slipshod and held only one or two signatures — leaving the rest of the 35 spaces blank.

By the second night, we saw more petitions circulated by unpaid volunteers, and it was clear that the unpaid folks had taken their jobs much more seriously.

Even so, as we slogged on, fueled by chocolate chip cookies and keto brownies that a fellow election worker brought in — freshly baked! and still warm from the oven! — we began voicing our astonishment and amusement at what we were finding.

Some “not genuine” signatures were pretty obviously done by a person signing for her or his significant other, for instance, and as the days went on we began finding more duplicate signatures.

On Monday night, an election worker sitting behind me blurted out, “This woman died in 2011! This one is not at all genuine.” A full-time election board worker rushed over, saying, “Let me see that. That’s a felony if they did it on purpose.”

A few minutes later, the election worker sitting beside me found another supposed signature from a person who had been dead for several years.

“Some of them, the names aren’t even spelled right,” my neighbor scoffed.

Our cookie chef, meanwhile, became exasperated with the lack of clarity in the way people both signed and printed their names: “I wish people could learn how to write — so that we can read their names and addresses, I mean.”

But my fellow election workers were undeterred by such impediments, and about four hours into Tuesday’s five-hour shift we learned that we had finished validating the abortion petitions and were moving on to the marijuana petitions.

On Wednesday there seemed to be an explosion of unusual names on the petitions, or maybe we were just noticing them. Kyle, the election worker sitting next to me, began giggling and showed me a signature on one petition that looked like a smiley face with a mustache — and, hilariously, it matched the signature on record at the board of elections.

On Thursday, after a discussion the day before about the best pizzas in town, one of my fellow volunteers brought in a stack of pizzas from Zamarelli’s in Grove City. The generosity sparked a festive atmosphere which seemed contagious, as we heard raucous laughter coming from the room next door. The party vibe swung into high gear when Mackey strolled in and announced that we wouldn’t have to come in to work the next day. We had worked so diligently that the few remaining petitions would be validated during Friday’s day shift — a full week ahead of the deadline.

Energized by the news, we went back to work, our comments now mixed with giggles: “Can’t people write legibly?” … “Where did they go to school?” … “That’s (address) not even in the state!” … “That’s Chicago (address), right?” … “Yeah, that’s waaaaay out of (Franklin) county.”

And finally, sarcastically: “I am SO going to miss this tomorrow,” as the room erupted in laughter.

All that was missing was a John Williams musical score to send us out the door.

Tim Feran is a native of Cleveland and a graduate of Harvard University. For more than 40 years he has been a professional journalist, first at the Lorain Journal, then for 30 years at The Columbus Dispatch, and currently as a freelance writer. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Maryellen O’Shaughnessy, Franklin County Clerk of Courts.

This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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