In bellwether Ohio county, some voters have “inherent distrust” of system

In bellwether Ohio county, some voters have “inherent distrust” of system

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

November 7, 2016

CLEVELAND — It’s coming up on 2 p.m. at the Lake County Administration Centre in suburban Cleveland, and the lineup to cast a ballot on the last day of early voting extends into the hallway, almost out the door.

This is a bellwether district, a place whose 159 precincts voted essentially the same as the national popular vote for president in 2012. It is expected to be one of the most closely contested districts this time around, too.

This is Janet F. Clair’s domain. Blonde, battle-worn, petite, no-nonsense, she is in constant motion. As director of the Lake County Board of Elections, she’s a busy woman. Early turnout has been high: of the 155,000 eligible voters here, 45,000 have already cast ballots in a number of ways: by mail, electronically or in person. 853 so far today. Advanced voting nearly doubled after 2008, when the county dropped age restrictions and allowed any registered voter, not just seniors or those who’d be out of the county on election day, to cast an early ballot.

Ohio Voting

Director of the Lake County Board of Elections, Janet F. Clair

It’s up to Clair to ensure voting is efficient, fair and transparent. This is her eighth election on the job, and she says this one is the most “unique.” In a country where the latest Angus Reid Institute survey shows one in five people think the voting process in their own area will be rigged, issues of fairness have taken on a life of their own. Clair’s exasperation is close to the surface.

“I would like to blow up both political parties right now,” she says. But voters have her frustrated too. There’s an “inherent distrust,” she says, of “things they don’t understand.”

That distrust, and what Clair sees as a lack of understanding, is driven by hard-charging campaigns on the ground that she says are trying to confuse and worry voters with conflicting information about absentee ballots, delivered via mailouts and robocalls. The biggest concern she’s seeing at polling places is that people think their votes won’t actually be counted.

As Clair begins to demonstrate how electronic voting machines work, she is called away and asked to speak to a distraught voter who believes her ballot will be among those uncounted.

The woman, on the brink of tears, is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an American flag, the silhouettes of two soldiers, and the words “American Strong.”

“I’ve been voting for 38 years,” she says. “I know what’s been going on, it’s just now that it’s come out.”

Clair tries to reassure the woman. “Would you feel better if you knew I’ve sworn an oath?”

“I don’t think it’s you,” the woman responds. “It’s people higher up in the party.” She doesn’t say which party she means.

Discussions of a “rigged system” are common this election at the Lake County Administration Centre

Mustering a soothing tone, Clair brings the voter around, explaining patiently and in detail why she can trust the electronic voting machine, and convinces her to cast her ballot. The woman votes, and thanks her.

“This is what I’m dealing with,” Clair says when the woman leaves. “All these conspiracy theories going around.”

For all her years of overseeing elections in Lake County, Clair won’t make predictions about what will happen, but she is bracing for the likelihood of legal challenges — possibly in her district — but also likely in other swing states, with “attorneys flooding in.”

“I will embrace anyone who wants to observe this election,” she says.

After months of preparation, persuasion and policing the vote, Clair is almost finished for another few years. Almost. Just one more day to go, and then hopefully a minimum of legal fuss.

“I’m just an old lady who wants to go back to walking her dog,” she says.

Shachi Kurl is Executive Director of the Angus Reid Institute, a Canadian, non-partisan, not for profit public opinion polling organization. She has visited several communities in the US while studying this election.

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