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88 Ohio counties, 11 different voting systems. Will that change anytime soon?

People vote early in-person at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Oct. 27, 2022.
Ryan Loew
People vote early in-person at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Oct. 27, 2022. Cuyahoga County is one of several counties in the state that uses paper ballots to vote.

Depending on what county you vote in, the way you actually cast your ballot may differ.

There are 11 different voting systems used across Ohio’s 88 counties. That’s according to the Secretary of State’s office. However, when it comes to those 11 systems there is one big difference: paper or touchscreen?

Richland County has used touchscreen technology for over a decade. Voters use the touchscreen machine which then prints their selections before they cast their ballot - all in one place. They rarely have problems with this technology, Board of Elections Director Matt Finfgeld said.

“The voters in Richland County are pretty experienced with it," Finfgeld said. "That’s what they’ve used and that’s what they’ve known for 15, 16 years.”

This is what Lake County Board of Elections Director Ross McDonald calls a culture of touchscreen voting. Like in Richland, Lake has used touchscreen voting machines since the early 2000s. Unlike Richland, however, Lake recently moved to new technology. Voters still vote using a touchscreen but now the machine prints out a physical ballot that voters feed into a precinct scanner to be tabulated.

“We wanted to try to find a middle path whereby voters in Lake County could still culturally use a touchscreen to vote," McDonald said. "We like touchscreens, because they’re automatically ADA compliant, meaning they can produce an audio ballot if a voter needs it.”

McDonald calls the technology a compromise between an entirely touchscreen process and only using paper ballots.

"I think we really found a strong middle path for everybody, and I think if we had to go back and do it over again we'd make the same decision," McDonald said.

He likes that touchscreens prevent voters from making simple errors.

“The beauty of the touchscreen is that it doesn’t allow you to make an indeterminate mark," McDonald said. "You either touch candidate a’s name or b or c or however many candidates are on the ballot.”

ADA compliance is another reason counties may opt for touchscreen machines. Counties that use paper ballots will often utilize touchscreen machines for people who need accommodations. This is one reason Lorain County made the switch, Board of Elections Director Paul Adams said.

"Even the counties that are all paper have to have some of those [touchscreen voting machines], and you know for us, we can have multiple people come in that might need that assistance, whether it be here or at the board or at the polling locations too," Adams said.

But in other counties, like Cuyahoga, the move to touch screens didn’t work.

“Cuyahoga County did go to touch screens, but it was a big failure," Board of Elections Deputy Director Tony Kaloger said. "There was a lot of problems.”

The county tried touch screen voting machines in 2004 when the equipment was still developing, Kaloger said. The training for poll workers was more than for paper ballots and that it was easier for them to just move back to that, he said.

 In-person early voting takes place at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Oct. 27, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
In-person early voting takes place at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Oct. 27, 2022. Voters inserted their completed ballots into the scanner to be tabulated.

But with voters manually filling in the ovals on their ballots, does human error make it harder to count votes? Kaloger said no.

“I mean at the polls when it occurs a voter can – it will kick out if there’s any problem or any question, let’s say somebody fills in two ovals for the same race, it’ll kick it out," Kaloger said. "And at that point the voter has an option of soil and defacing that ballot (returning an erroneously marked ballot to a precinct officer and obtaining a replacement) or just saying, ‘Eh, I didn’t really care about that one anyhow.’ And they can just accept it.”

For absentee ballots, the board of elections has a policy for unclear votes, Kaloger said.

"We've seen them where people put check marks instead of filling them in or maybe they filled in one, and they say, 'Not this guy, this one,'" Kaloger said. "Then we have a policy that basically says this is what it is. You would accept the one that's common sense, you know."

Instructions for marking a ballot hang inside a voting booth at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Instructions for marking a ballot hang inside a voting booth at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

Kaloger thinks there’s more public trust in paper ballots in Cuyahoga County.

“It’s just something more traditional that people can see, and they can touch," Kaloger said.

Portage County also uses paper ballots to vote. Board of Elections Deputy Director Terry Nielson is grateful for this in the current age of election disinformation.

“There would be many more people complaining about touchscreens, even though all of the equipment that’s used in whatever county in the state of Ohio is approved by the state and the federal government," Nielson said.

The county’s switch to paper ballots was actually pretty recent. Up until 2016, Portage County used a touchscreen system. But voters weren’t attached to touchscreens like they are in other counties, Nielson said.

“Sometimes people think we’ve always had ballots – paper ballots," Nielson said.

When the board of elections was looking for new equipment in 2016, touchscreens just weren’t a viable option, Nielson said.

Paper or touchscreen, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how voters cast their ballots, Richland County Board of Elections Director Matt Finfgeld said.

“They should have a lot of trust. In Ohio, not just Richland County, but Ohio does it right," Finfgeld said. "Everything is bipartisan that we do in this office.”

The Board of Voting Machine Examiners in the Secretary of State’s office approves the voting technology used in the state. But each board of elections ultimately has the power to pick their own machines, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.