Skip Navigation
Resource

Ohio Precinct Election Officials: Rules and Constraints

Guardrails to ensure that Ohio precinct election officials cannot disrupt election processes.

  • Written and Published in Partnership with All Voting is Local, with Special Thanks to Ballard Spahr, LLP
Published: September 29, 2022
View the entire Poll Worker Rules and Constraints series

In Ohio, precinct election officials (Ohio’s legal term for poll workers) play a pivotal role in administering elections. Their election duties range from opening and closing polling places to assisting voters and ensuring peace and good order in polling locations. footnote1_8tdlgjn 1 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.22, 3501.26; Frank Larose, Ohio Sec’y of State, Directive 2022–10, Chapter 6: Precincts, Polling Locations, and Precinct Election (hereinafter “Directive 2022–10”), 178, https://www.ohiosos.gov/globalassets/elections/directives/2022/eom/dir2022–10-ch06.pdf; Frank Larose, Ohio Sec’y of State, Precinct Election Official Manual (June 15, 2021) (hereinafter “PEO Manual”), 5–6, https://www.ohiosos.gov/globalassets/elections/eoresources/peo-training/peotrainingmanual.pdf.  Like other states across the country, Ohio has faced election worker shortages in recent years. footnote2_xildwod 2 In fact, Ohio has exceeded its 2022 statewide poll worker recruitment goals due to a number of targeted poll worker recruitment programs implemented by the secretary of state.  For elections to operate well, it is critical that government officials recruit enough qualified individuals to serve as precinct election officials (“PEOs”). It is equally critical, however, that these PEOs serve in an impartial and nondisruptive manner.

Recent media reports have identified efforts around the country to politicize poll worker recruitment and encourage individuals who subscribe to falsehoods about elections and the integrity of the democratic process to take positions in which they could potentially impact electoral outcomes. To be sure, no poll worker should be prevented from participating in the electoral process based on their viewpoints or beliefs. State and local officials can, however, take reasonable steps to ensure that PEOs are willing to follow the law and lawful instructions on Election Day.

Ohio, like other states, already has many guardrails in place to prevent PEOs from disrupting the lawful administration of an election. These requirements and procedures are detailed below, along with further actions that election officials can take. 

Legal Constraints on Precinct Election Officials

Eligibility

Applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements under Ohio law. In Ohio, county boards of elections are tasked with appointing at least four PEOs to each precinct and, as such, must carefully examine and investigate each applicant’s qualifications. footnote3_7ydnzgl 3 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.22(A)(1).  Ohio law requires that PEOs be: (1) registered voters and residents of the county in which their assigned precinct is located; (2) not convicted of a felony or election law violation; (3) able to read and write English; (4) not a candidate in the election footnote4_rpbg75n 4 Similarly, the secretary of state’s Election Official Manual directs that a PEO “may not serve in any precinct in which a family member or business associate is a candidate for elected office.” Frank Larose, Ohio Secretary of State, Election Official Manual (Feb. 2, 2022) (hereinafter “Election Manual”), 186, https://www.ohiosos.gov/globalassets/elections/directives/2022/eom/eom_fullversion_2022–02.pdf. ; and (5) fully trained as required by their board of elections. footnote5_sazip0d 5 Id.; Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.27(A).  Seventeen-year-old Ohio residents also may serve as PEOs if they participate in a qualifying high school program or if a county board determines that not enough qualified voters in a precinct are available to serve as PEOs for an election. footnote6_b8jc9ay 6 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.22(B)-(C).  Upon appointment, each PEO receives a certificate of appointment from their board of elections that may — for “good and sufficient reasons” detailed below — be revoked at any time. footnote7_bk5i9o4 7 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.27(A).  Serving without a certificate of appointment constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor. footnote8_bqms78i 8 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3599.17(A)(6), (B).

Applicants must be willing to follow applicable laws and procedures. Before opening the polls, Ohio law requires PEOs to take an oath to “support the constitution of the United States of America and the constitution of the state of Ohio and its laws” and discharge the duties of a PEO “as required by law and the rules and instructions of the board of elections” of their respective counties. footnote9_tnal369 9 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.31.  The oath further requires PEOs to immediately report to their respective board of elections “any violations of the election laws” that come to their attention. footnote10_raylq0c 10 Id.  Pursuant to this oath, boards may refuse to appoint applicants who demonstrate an unwillingness to follow applicable laws and instructions. Boards should not turn away applicants solely on the basis of their viewpoints or beliefs so long as they are consistent with laws governing elections. footnote11_21ieglm 11 See generally, U.S. Const. amend. I.

PEOs must attend a training. Each board of elections must establish a training program for PEOs, as prescribed by the secretary of state, at least 60 days before the election. footnote12_7kmj3c0 12 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.27(B); Directive 2022–10, supra note 1, at 184.  The secretary of state provides training materials, and boards may also use additional materials prepared by or on behalf of the board. footnote13_umyk52n 13 Directive 2022–10 at 184; see also, e.g., PEO Manual, supra note 1.  New PEOs must be trained in person on the county’s voting equipment before participating in their first election. footnote14_0kp8141 14 Id.  Once trained, PEOs must receive additional instruction once every three years, when the county changes voting equipment, or whenever the board or secretary of state considers additional instruction necessary. footnote15_8czzeo4 15 Id.

Chain of Command

PEOs must answer only to their designated election officials. Under Ohio law, PEOs are appointed and compensated by their respective boards, which may remove PEOs for “neglect of duty, malfeasance, or misconduct in office or for any other good and sufficient reason.” footnote16_qplodsk 16 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.22(A)(1), 3501.11(D).  Each county board must appoint a director and deputy director from different political parties to manage the day-to-day operations of the board of elections office, including recruiting, training, and assisting in the hiring of PEOs. footnote17_ld99d8r 17 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.09, 3501.13; Election Manual, supra note 4, at 8, 10.  Accordingly, and pursuant to their oath, PEOs must answer only to their board, director, and deputy director rather than to their political party or any party official. footnote18_43rt8e5 18 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.31.  To ensure fairness and the nonpartisan execution of election duties, Ohio law further mandates that no more than half of the PEOs in a particular precinct may be members of the same political party. Individuals unaffiliated with a political party also may serve. footnote19_c9chxlm 19 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.22(A)(1); Directive 2022–10, supra note 1, at 179.

Voting location managers oversee the election process and PEOs. Boards of elections designate one precinct election official per voting precinct or polling location as the voting location manager (“VLM”). footnote20_uxga14p 20 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.22(A)(1).  VLMs, who must be members of the party that garnered the most votes in that precinct in the previous gubernatorial election, increase efficiency at polling locations by overseeing the election process (including the PEOs) in a given precinct and performing certain additional duties, including assigning tasks and administering the oath of office to PEOs. footnote21_3wzin6s 21 Id.; PEO Manual, supra note 1, at 4–5; Directive 2022–10, supra note 1, at 178. A board of elections may vote to have a single voting location for multiple precincts, in which case the board may designate a single VLM. Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.22(A)(2). That VLM must be a member of the same political party as the gubernatorial candidate who, in the most recent election, received the largest share of the combined vote for all of the precincts using that voting location. Id.  PEOs must perform all lawful tasks assigned by their VLM. footnote22_yqszdka 22 PEO Manual, supra note 1, at 5.

Following Applicable Laws

PEOs are further constrained by their duty to support and protect federal, state, and local election laws. footnote23_brdemzs 23 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.31.  Failure to do so may violate their oath of office, warrant immediate removal, and result in criminal liability. footnote24_9i7f9a8 24 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.11(D), 3501.22(A)(1), 3501.31, 3599.19.  Further, PEOs must actively prevent unlawful behavior in elections, including by other PEOs, and promptly report any violations to the board of elections. footnote25_h8busxx 25 Id.

No person, including PEOs, may intimidate or harass voters. Federal and state laws prohibit actual or attempted intimidation, threats, or coercion against a voter for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote. footnote26_32nq0gc 26 See, e.g., 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101(b), 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.33, 3501.35(A).  Violators are subject to significant civil and criminal liability. footnote27_rpjeceb 27 Id.  Indeed, Ohio law requires PEOs to “prevent and stop” any behavior that “obstruct[s], intimidate[s], or interfere[s] with any elector in registering or voting.” footnote28_bcdssnj 28 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.33; Directive, 2022–10, supra note 1, at 178. In fulfilling their duties to prevent disorder and voter intimidation, PEOs may seek aid from the sheriff, police, or peace officers, and the officers must obey the PEO’s lawful orders. Id. PEOs may order the removal or arrest of any person who causes interference. However, the order for removal or arrest may not prevent any eligible person from registering or voting. Id. Examples of prohibited intimidation may include using insulting, offensive, or threatening language. footnote29_yze4hxc 29 See, e.g., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Federal Law Constraints on Post-Election “Audits” (2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1417796/download (explaining federal voter intimidation laws and explaining that intimidation may be in the form of both physical and non-physical threats); see also Fact Sheet: Protecting Against Voter Intimidation, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown Law, https://www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2020/10/Voter-Intimidation-Fact-Sheet.pdf (last visited August 4, 2022).

PEOs may not disrupt elections through disinformation. In addition to prohibiting voter intimidation, state law explicitly requires PEOs to prevent “tumult, or disorder” and “enforce peace and good order.” footnote30_bo2r7zb 30 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.33.  Spreading disinformation that creates disruptions and disorder — including false information about who can vote, how and when they can vote, or other aspects of the election process, including vote counting and registration list maintenance — may therefore violate state law and warrant removal. Similarly, PEOs may not influence or attempt to influence any voter for or against any candidate or issue. footnote31_glukm25 31 Ohio Rev. Code § 3599.38.

PEOs may not prevent an eligible voter from casting a ballot. In Ohio, PEOs may challenge a voter’s eligibility only for limited reasons and pursuant to the process set forth by statute. footnote32_flg96jj 32 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.20.

Specifically, PEOs are limited to challenging a potential voter’s eligibility based on issues of citizenship, state residency, precinct residency, and age. footnote33_a17x9ay 33 Id. During primary elections, a PEO may also challenge a potential voter based on their party affiliation. Ohio Rev. Code § 3513.19(A)(3). If challenged on this ground, a voter may make a statement under penalty of election falsification giving the facts necessary to determine their eligibility to vote. Ohio Rev. Code § 3513.20. If the voter declines to provide such statement, they must be permitted to cast a provisional ballot. Id.  Ohio law provides a set list of questions that PEOs may ask for a challenge based on any of these grounds. footnote34_gl3iux4 34 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.20.  Unless a PEO is unable to verify the challenged voter’s eligibility, the voter may cast a regular ballot. footnote35_sao0yu5 35 Id.  If the challenged voter’s eligibility cannot be verified, the PEO must provide a provisional ballot. footnote36_cdir1qq 36 Id.; see also Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.181 (governing provisional ballots).  If a challenged voter is in the wrong polling location, the PEO must direct the voter to the correct one. footnote37_xy047cm 37 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.20(C).  And if the challenged voter refuses to go to their correct polling location, the PEO must provide the individual with a provisional ballot. footnote38_pdswz0w 38 Id.  In short, Ohio voters who affirm they are qualified should not leave a polling location without at least the opportunity to cast a provisional ballot.

PEOs must complete certain tasks in bipartisan teams. State law and secretary of state guidelines require bipartisan teams to handle and sign off on certain critical election tasks so as to limit the access that any one individual has to ballots and other sensitive materials without oversight. These tasks include issuing provisional ballots, opening voting machines, and returning materials to the board of elections after the polls close. footnote39_pxn42w5 39 Ohio Rev. Code § 3505.183(A); Election Manual at 188.

PEOs are prohibited from intentionally interfering with election ballots, supplies, and polling areas. Ohio law provides a comprehensive list of prohibited PEO activities, including, but not limited to:

  • opening, or allowing to be opened, any sealed package containing registration lists, ballots, blanks, pollbooks, or other materials used in the election;
  • destroying, losing, or failing to deliver registration lists, ballots, blanks, pollbooks, or other materials used in the election;
  • receiving a ballot from an unqualified voter or refusing a ballot from a qualified voter;
  • counting, or allowing to be counted, an illegal or fraudulent ballot;
  • misleading a voter who cannot prepare their ballot;
  • admitting unauthorized individuals to the polling room;
  • refusing to admit authorized individuals to the polling room; or
  • counting the ballots in a way that violates the law. footnote40_medcw7h 40 Ohio Rev. Code § 3599.19. See also Ohio Rev. Code § 3599.17. Other prohibited conduct can be found in the Ohio Secretary of State’s PEO training manual. See PEO Manual, supra note 1, at 6–7.

Engaging in any of these behaviors constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor. footnote41_btc5r1e 41 Id.

Available Enforcement Mechanisms

Ohio boards of elections have broad authority to appoint, remove, oversee, and train PEOs to ensure that elections run smoothly and remain free from disruptions. Available enforcement mechanisms include:

Screening process. As noted above, boards of elections exercise authority over PEOs through the certificate of appointment process. footnote42_9qk7p10 42 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.27(A), 3501.22(A)(1).  Consistent with this authority, boards can refuse to appoint individuals who cannot meet or are unwilling to follow the above eligibility criteria and constraints. Further, a county board of elections may require a PEO to appear before the board for review of their qualifications, and failure to appear may result in a first-degree misdemeanor. footnote43_i79tsjy 43 Ohio Rev. Code § 3599.17(A)(1), (B).

Training content. As noted above, state law requires PEOs to complete training before the election. Each board of elections must establish a training program for PEOs, as prescribed by the secretary of state, at least 60 days before the election. footnote44_a7t2bmd 44 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.27(B); Directive 2022–10, supra note 1, at 184.  At this training, officials should remind PEOs about relevant laws and rules, including their duty to answer only to their proper chain of command rather than their political parties, any party official, or any other outside individual or entity. footnote45_1specln 45 See generally PEO Manual, supra note 1.  Similarly, officials should train PEOs to identify and report any violations of these procedures. footnote46_1obr0zk 46 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.31.  These training sessions provide an opportunity for officials to clearly explain the checks in place to prevent voter fraud or manipulation of the election process and provide context to correct common rumors and misperceptions.

Assigning VLMs and PEOs. Given the VLM’s role in overseeing the election process and PEOs, boards may choose — to the extent possible — to appoint in this role only individuals with previous PEO experience and demonstrated knowledge of voting procedures. Local officials can also aim to track where first-time PEOs are placed, distribute first-time managers evenly across the jurisdiction, and ensure that every precinct has at least one PEO with previous experience.

Recruiting and removal procedures. As detailed above, any PEO may be “summarily removed” from office at any time for “neglect of duty, malfeasance, or misconduct in office or for any other good and sufficient reason” — including refusal to follow the chain of command or applicable laws. footnote47_xz3xpy6 47 Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3501.11(D), 3501.22(A)(1).  To ensure that boards maintain an adequate number of PEOs for Election Day in the event of PEO removal, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office recommends recruiting at least 15 percent more PEOs than required for each polling location. footnote48_8flpndp 48 Directive 2022–10, supra note 1, at 180.

Dispute resolution. Under Ohio law, PEOs work as a team to conduct an election at their assigned precinct. footnote49_en9wu2j 49 Id. at 178 (citing Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.22).  PEOs may from time to time disagree over election rules and procedures. County boards may choose to create a set procedure for reporting disputes up the chain of command so they can be quickly resolved. To minimize disruptions to the election process, boards also can train all PEOs — especially VLMs — in effective methods of dispute resolution.

Oath of office. The oath of office provides a strong legal basis for preventing and addressing abuses by PEOs. footnote50_tnpyi2r 50 Ohio Rev. Code § 3501.31. Failure to take the oath may result in a first-degree misdemeanor. Ohio Rev. Code § 3599.17(A)(3), (B).

End Notes