Heart and Hustle in Hamilton County

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Rewrote the Playbook on Local Elections

March 26, 2021 Sherry Poland, Sally Krisel
Heart and Hustle in Hamilton County
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Rewrote the Playbook on Local Elections
Show Notes Transcript

Hamilton County Board of Elections' top officials, Sherry Poland and Sally Krisel,  talk about changes made on the fly to conduct Hamilton County's 2020 elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

With nonstop directives coming out of the State due to the  Governor and the Courts arguing  election postponement, Director Poland and Deputy Director Krisel reflect on their sleepless night before the March primary. 
 
In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, Poland and Krisel also talk candidly about efforts they took to combat misinformation, while preserving the integrity of our local elections. 

Discover how the pandemic is impacting future elections. Give a listen on episode 7 of Heart and Hustle in Hamilton County. 

Episode 7_mixdown

Fri, 3/26 1:59PM • 28:12

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

elections, vote, hamilton county, election cycle, people, polling locations, board, poll workers, polling places, polls, cybersecurity, closed, system, received, sally, voters, ballot, county, staff, mythbusters

SPEAKERS

Sherry Poland, Jeff Aluotto, Sally Krisel, Bridget Doherty

 

Jeff Aluotto  00:04

Welcome to heart and hustle in Hamilton County, a podcast about the people places and policies that govern our local response to the covid 19 outbreak. I'm your host, Jeff Alito on the county administrator for Hamilton County. And during this episode, we will be discussing the issues, challenges and opportunities Hamilton County faces as we battle a global pandemic. And I'm here as always, with my co host, Bridget Doherty, Communications Manager for Hamilton County. Hello, everybody. Hello. And Bridget, I have to admit that I've waited a long time for this particular episode. We all know how difficult it is to describe what counties do. I mean, counties do so many things in the grand scheme of local government. But one of the most critical functions that we provide to ensure really are found the foundations of our system of democratic government by managing our election system. Anytime I know, when I give budget presentations, or when I'm talking to groups about county government, this is always an area of focus on I mean, it may be out of sight out of mind for many months out of the year. But really, there's no function of government more important than ensuring the continuity of our democratic system. And counties are directly responsible for that. And as we know, COVID-19 was a wild ride. But pulling off multiple elections during a global health pandemic. Really, during an uncertain time, especially when you think of everything that was going on last year, just was incredibly difficult, and incredibly challenging. And we were fortunate enough in Hamilton County, to have two women who pulled off an extraordinarily run well run operation. So I want to take this time to introduce Sherry Poland and Sally crystal, who are the director of the CO directors of our Hamilton County Board of election. Sherry Sally, welcome to heart and hustle in Hamilton County.

 

Sherry Poland  02:10

Thank you for having us. Yes, thank you, Jeff.

 

Jeff Aluotto  02:13

So I guess first just to get started since just to level set, so people who might be listening to the podcast understand boards of elections, which really are structured much differently than a lot of other county operations, talk a little bit about the structure and leadership set up at the board of elections and, and why the average Hamilton County and who might see you guys might often see you guys together. Tell us a little bit about the structure of the board of elections here in Hamilton County, and really in Ohio in general.

 

Sherry Poland  02:47

As well, and Ohio boards of elections are governed by a four person, board. Two are nominated by the local Democratic Party and two are nominated by the local Republican Party. The parties make those nominations to the Secretary of State Secretary of State is the chief elections official for the state. And he makes those those appointments. And then the board appoints a director and a deputy director. And typically, historically, in Hamilton County, the board will appoint a director that's of the same political party affiliation as the current Secretary of State. And then the Deputy Director must be of opposite political party affiliation as the director. So that's pretty much how we have Sally and I and why you see us together so much. Everything we do is in a bipartisan fashion, we have 44 full time employees, half were appointed by the Democratic Party, half by the Republican Party, and that also carries down into our temporary staff that we hire during election cycles.

 

Bridget Doherty  03:53

So can you tell us a little bit about the dual access locks? That's what I found fascinating when I came in, visited you both and took a tour of your facility.

 

Sherry Poland  04:05

Sure, well, certain areas of the board of elections, our vote counting room, our warehouse anywhere we store ballots, or the equipment that ballots are cast on. They have a dual lock system, and it takes one republican and one democrat to be able to enter those rooms.

 

Jeff Aluotto  04:25

That is fascinating. So so just just to end, to be clear, just to enter those specific rooms, you have to have a handle. You have to have a Republican and a Democrat that each have through ID tags through keys. How does that work?

 

Sherry Poland  04:42

That's correct. That's the way we do it. We have a key card access system. And there's two of them in those certain areas. And you have to have the democratic employee that's coded and then a republican employee that's coded in the system. You have to have both Have them together to open the door to get into the room. 

 

Sally Krisel  05:04

And to add at, it translates all the way down even in areas that aren't having sensitive materials are extras have to work in pairs of twos a Democrat or Republican. We had one employee get hurt one time. And that person was being taken away in a rescue squad. And her counterpart that had been working with her thought she had to go to because it was a bipartisan team.

 

Jeff Aluotto  05:30

Well, yeah, so we're talking, it seems like we might be talking into the minutiae a little bit, but and we'll talk a little bit later about some election integrity issues, things of that nature. But I think this just gets to the heart of really, you know, how far how in depth boards of elections here in Ohio go as it relates to maintaining security and, and integrity in the system. So, but this is a podcast primarily about COVID-19. So I mean, I can't imagine for the two of you that COVID couldn't have happened at a worse time, when you consider the election cycle that was building in, in the nation in here locally on 2020. So, so talk a little bit about when you first saw COVID-19 coming and what first made you aware of it, and what were your first thoughts about how it was going to impact your operation?

 

Sally Krisel  06:31

Well, we first started seeing it like everybody else on the news, and we opened for early voting for the march 17 primary on February 19. And we of course, followed what we could from CDC guidelines, which was having hand sanitizer available. And we saw boaters coming in with gloves with coverings on their faces and everything but so but it took a while for any of those ideas to filter down to us. By the time we hit the weekend before March 17. We were seeing a lot of poll workers drop out. So we were trying to recruit poll workers to make sure that we'd had people who could be at the polls on on the 17th. So we had classes on Saturday, Sunday, Monday. And even as late as Monday it was when the governor came down and the doctor asked him came out with guidelines saying maybe we shouldn't have the election and then all heck broke loose. 

 

Sherry Poland  07:31

Absolutely. I think for me, sort of the lightbulb moment when Oh no, you know, this is going to be big. And this is going to be a problem was when we received the directive on March 9 to move all of our polling locations out of senior living facilities that so close to election was was a big enough of a task. But you know, our team did great. They quickly found alternate locations, we got notice out to voters in time. And then we also set up a plan to vote the residents that live in those nursing homes that couldn't couldn't leave to vote. But we knew what would be the next thing to fall when when that happened. And that's because so many of our poll workers are in the we're in the vulnerable category. You know, they were there were many of them are retirees. And so we knew we knew that was going to be the next shoe to fall is that they would start calling off. And that's exactly what happened in the week leading up to it. And we we didn't blame them, we could you know, we completely understand. And I to get back sort of the bipartisan a way that we do business here. I think that's a perfect example of that, you know, our four board members, one of which is the chair of the Democratic Party, the other is the chair of the Republican Party, they came together and we did a press conference, and they really put the word out coming together, that we need help, you know, this, this is critical. And it was it was kind of really neat to see because we put the message out that, you know, our greatest generation that's administered democracy for so many years. They can't do it now. And it's our turn, you know, those that are not in the vulnerable category. It's your turn to step up for democracy. And it was overwhelming the number of calls that we got in that final weekend and salaries that we added all these additional training classes. It was, you know, teachers who, you know, suddenly the schools are shut down, I can come work the polls and college students that I've been sent in from college, I can work. So we were ready to go. We were ready to have in person voting on March 17.

 

Jeff Aluotto  09:39

And talk a little bit about that. What What did you have to do both in terms of prepping and your your poll workers as well as prepping your polling locations? What What did you have to do and what did you have to go through to make sure that this was a safe experience for both those working in those coming to vote in a polling location? Yeah, well, the

 

Sherry Poland  09:58

match election was a lot different than than what we did for November and the preparation. All of this was new. And if you think back to mid March at that time, the CDC wasn't even recommending to wear masks. So our facial covering, so we didn't have that in mind. We had secured hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. And we were sending those out to the polling places. And we're prepared to do that, and actually did. So all of the supplies for the election were distributed to all 307 polling locations, all of our voting location managers had picked up the ballots and had those ready to go. Everyone had been trained, the equipment had been tested. We were we, the poll workers were trained. So we had put all of that in place. And then suddenly, the afternoon of March 16 happened where we started getting more that the public health officials had received, we believe our understanding was some new data they came from from other countries, and they had changed their stance and and and no longer felt it was safe for people to work the polls or people to vote at the at the polling places. And that was an extremely crazy afternoon because it bounced back and forth, it was polls were closed. Now they're going to be open. Now they're going to be closed, and went back and forth all day. We were like sending robo calls out to co workers, you know, you don't need to come Monday night. And then all of a sudden, all the polls are going to be open. So you need to go into your polling place on election morning and do the setup real quickly instead of doing it Monday night. And then I think it was 4am in the morning, when it finally was decided that the polls would be closed through through the court system. And of course, at that point in time, we couldn't reach people. So we did have some co workers end up going to their polling locations that morning. We had to send troubleshooters out to every location to put up notices saying that the polls were closed due to an action by Dr. Acton. Yeah, it was really pretty amazing. Just in those few hours. You know, the notice that we were able to get out to all of the polling places. And again, we luckily kept our troubleshooters on standby. Those are folks that are they receive extensive training with the voting equipment. And typically they're out in the field on election day, just ready to provide any type of support to poll workers that may be necessary. But we use them we have them appear for duty that morning, even though we didn't know if we were going to be voting or not. And since we weren't, they were able to post notices on all of the point locations and have that done before the polls were even scheduled to be open. And just mass communication out at that point efforts to the general public and all of our poll workers.

 

Bridget Doherty  12:59

So Sherry and Sally, I mean, looking back on that night, because it was such a back and forth. Did anybody get any sleep and for you know, how long were you awake?

 

Sherry Poland  13:09

I remember at one point, my maybe 1130. Midnight, my husband say you have to at least get a few hours of sleep, you need to get a few hours and I maybe two or three and then right back into work. Of course we you know, we had our phones and they were buzzing all night long.

 

Jeff Aluotto  13:30

So as you got into the election cycle, Sherry and Sally, tell us a little bit about how, as an organization, you went about combating misinformation. I mean, this was this was obviously an election cycle, especially in November, unlike any other. And you guys really ran a really top notch social media presence, etc. What was your philosophy and your plan for combating misinformation during the pandemic and during the election cycle?

 

Sherry Poland  14:04

Right? Well, we had set up a plan for battling misinformation even before COVID entered the scene. We know that something that we hear a lot about in presidential elections, and we knew it was going to be bigger than ever involved in this one. So we had worked out a plan for that even before COVID head and our plan was, you know, number one to absolutely have a robust social media presence. And, you know, we have something we call Mythbusters. And it's just the typical things we hear about elections that are just completely false. For example, absentee ballots are only counted if we need them as the elections close as one of our Mythbusters. So we have those on our website and then we also push them out constantly throughout the election cycle around key points of when certain actions are taking place like when the close of registering to vote is is nearing or when We begin Assa t voting. So we sort of time our Mythbusters out. We also evaluate, I evolved over the years tried to develop good relationships with our local press, we try to make ourselves as accessible to them as as possible to help us spread that message we actually held in early 2020. Again, before before COVID was was on the scene. Elections was long for the media, and we invited the local media in so we could explain to them sort of just how elections work in Ohio, and also so that they could meet us and get to know us. So they know that they would come to us when they were hearing things and and stories are out there and get the true message from us. So we use a lot of unification with people who have questions, you know, to explain processes to be completely transparent as we could about all the processes involved. And, you know, I think that that kind of doubled when people started voting down here and had good experiences and talked about how safe things were how there was a democratic republican president. So there was no kind of influence in the voting process, you got to go in and do what you wanted to do and vote for whomever you wanted to so and that the word of mouth that people who came in and voted really helped us as well.

 

Bridget Doherty  16:29

So with the integrity of the elections really being front and center, and a lot of the news articles at the time, you know, what do you tell the average citizens? What do you tell your neighbors who may have questions about the integrity of our local election cycle?

 

Sherry Poland  16:45

Why don't we start out with what we've just been discussing how we are structured in a bipartisan manner at the board of elections. And everything that we do is Democrats and Republicans, it's, you know, we often joke and say, it's the one place still in our country where Democrats and Republicans come together to do the people's work. And it really is true. So stuck with that. And then also, we have a paper ballot system in Hamilton County, so it's hand marked by the voter themselves, they feed it through the scanner. And then if there is a recount necessary, if a race is close enough, and a recount is necessary, it's about paper ballot, that is that is counted. We also perform audits after every election, again, looking at that paper ballot, doing a head count of a percentage of those casts, and comparing it to the electronic results and making sure that it is accurate. And we also, you know, our our vote counting room, our equipment, none of that is connected to the internet. Often when the public's wondering, you know, ATM, okay, polls closed at 7:30pm. Where are those election results? You know, we're so used to receiving everything, you know, instantly these days. That's because we do not transmit the results over the internet. It's a physical delivery of the equipment and the ballot by Democrats and Republicans to the board of elections. And we physically remove the data, or the medium that has the data on it into our vote counting room. So there's the internet's not involved. And that's really what was interesting after the election, as we got several contact us on our website by people who wanted to come and look at their specific ballot. And we had to do a lot of explaining saying we can't pull your ballot because your ballot is separated from your name and your identification, which provides for the secrecy of the vote. So it was real interesting going through that process as well trying to explain to voters how we don't have a ballot sitting here with Jeff alunos name on it.

 

Jeff Aluotto  19:00

Got it and on a similar In a similar vein, the issue of you had the issue of just the general integrity of the election. You also have a lot of concerns coming up about cybersecurity, and not just in boards of elections, but really local government and organizations all over the country in the world. Talk a little bit about Hamilton County's and really gets into Ohio's position as leaders in cybersecurity as it relates to election security.

 

Sherry Poland  19:31

Absolutely. Our current Secretary of State, Franco loros is really seen as a national leader in cyber security and elections and his team put together a I think it was a 36 points directive, early in 2019, that was issued to board for board of elections and it was very in depth. And boards across Ohio had you know, this was a mandate. I And I obviously can't get into the weeds when we go in about cybersecurity. But it really ended up being really a model that other states then turn to when they were preparing for 2020. And this was something that that his team did back in 2019, and then directed all boards in the state to do this and 2019. And then it continues, even today, we have meetings every other week with a cybersecurity team, from the Secretary of State's office. So it's ongoing, you know, we're not letting up on it just because the presidential election is over. 

 

Sally Krisel  20:36

It's called for training for all staff to learn about phishing, and all types of cyber security things that could go through our voter registration system. It's a mandated dual authentication for entering into our computer system. It required that we have a.gov, we were really you know, from that, from that, both small details all the way to all the different security things that were placed on our servers. You know, just the whole nine yards that we had to follow, we had about a month and a half to do it. And it really pushed our IT department. And the county IT department helped us a lot with it. But it's still continuing to to go on. And I think that that I know that made all of us feel very secure about what was going on.

 

Bridget Doherty  21:24

So we were joking earlier that no one gives you kind of a playbook for presidential elections during a pandemic. But after the after the fact you know, what are some of these lasting impacts? What do you remember most or anything that's going to stick for the future due to COVID?

 

Sherry Poland  21:42

One thing definitely, I think we're going to see an increase in voting by mail. At prior to 2020 70% of Hamilton County voters choose to vote in person at their polling place on election day. For many that will still be their choice. very adamant about that. But I think for others who voted by mail for the first time during either the primary or the general, I think has realized how easy it is. And we think that we think that trend is going to rise. I don't think it'll be as high as what we saw in 2020. But I do think more voters will be voting by mail. 

 

Sally Krisel  22:21

And I think the pictures we did I take back our all of our staff people who went over and voted people helped help the folks in line during early voting went to work the polling places as troubleshooters, on Election Day, everybody just really kicked in and provided a service to the voters in Hamilton County. However, they decided to vote whether it was early in person, whether it was by mail, or whether it was at their polling place on election day. We we had I think it was somewhere around 40 or 50. People who who voted had to be voted at their cars because they had COVID. And there was none of our staff is a part time poll workers or full time staff people had any squeamishness about doing it. They felt like it was their duty to do it to make sure that that person got to vote the way that they wanted to. 

 

Sherry Poland  23:14

Yeah, I think that's a really good point, Sally, I think that we just can't say enough about the team here at the board of elections, literally when the whole rest of the country and world was shutting down and working from home. You know, there's there's no working from home in this line of work. And you know, they were working 12 hour days, six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. So we were really ramping up when the world was shutting down. And I just I'm so impressed and proud to be part of that team. And I know, that's definitely I think that'll stick with me forever.

 

Bridget Doherty  23:50

Absolutely. Like when you go through that as a team, you know, can only make that camaraderie a little bit that much stronger. I would think in that environment.

 

Sherry Poland  23:59

It said, and also something that we never really see before is we had we received thank you cards from voters, and thank you notes. And not to mention what was put on social media about their experience. And we don't, we don't see that, you know, I think people when they get what they expect, they tend to not give a response at all. And people expect to have a good voting experience. And usually they do and when they don't, we definitely hear about it, which we should, but we were just amazed by the number of and that really kept staff going. They would be opening up, you know, mail and they removing a voters application and find a post it note, you know, saying thank you and we actually had a little board and we would put them all up on the board. It really I think helps keep staff motivated and to keep going. 

 

Sally Krisel  24:49

Someone even put up a banner after the election on the overhead on the Norwood lateral saying thank you to the board of elections and you Those kinds of things just made everybody feel very good. We kind of put out all the positive comments on a weekly basis as we went through the presidential and, and took pictures of staff, you know, we're just regular people doing our job. And, you know, it was recognized by the public. Yeah, the day after election day, there was even three white balloons left at the board and someone had taken a sharpie and wrote hearts, I heart VoIP.

 

Jeff Aluotto  25:28

That's awesome. And it truly was well deserved, and a response that you might not typically get doing the job of a public servant, but truly, in this particular time and place couldn't be more more deserving, especially for you and your staff who went through all of this. So that's great that the public acknowledge that. And, Sherry, Sally, one of the things that we like to do on these podcasts is also talk just a little bit about careers in local government, etc. So, number one, are you guys hiring at the board of elections? And if so, how do people go about putting in an application etc. And number two, if someone was interested in a career in elections or elections management, what what recommendations would you have for folks who are starting out in their careers,

 

Sherry Poland  26:26

as far as employment, and we currently all of our full time positions ourselves, so we do not have any full time openings. But as we mentioned before, we do hire temporary, seasonal staff around election cycles. And we will be hiring Democrats and Republicans in preparing for the November election, and we would probably look to restart receiving applications for people from that around early August and to July, early August. So we have temporary work available and we're always in the need of coworkers.

 

Jeff Aluotto  27:01

Excellent. Well, Jerry, Poland and Sally crystal, I want to thank both of you for your for your time today. And thank you and all the employees of the Hamilton County Board of Elections for all that you guys do, and have done as public servants on behalf of Hamilton County and its residents. I think we've seen today the community is truly fortunate to have you too at the helm. So I just wanted to thank you for all that you've done.

 

Sherry Poland  27:26

Thank you. We appreciate that. 

 

Sally Krisel  27:27

Thank you, Jeff, and we appreciate the support the demonstration gives us every time we ask.

 

Jeff Aluotto  27:32

Absolutely. You are very welcome. And thanks to all of you for listening to Episode Seven of heart and hustle in Hamilton County. Here's a reminder to subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify and other directors. And as always, you can find the podcast on our website Hamilton County ohio.gov on the county administrator's page. On behalf of my co host Bridget Doherty. I'm Jeff Alito county administrator. We'll see you next time on heart and hustle in Hamilton County.