Meet the Faces of Democracy: Tonya Wichman

Ohio Republican discusses the joy of bringing democracy to voters and the importance of additional protections for election workers

  • Kathryn Thomas

Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.

Tonya Wichman, a registered Republican, serves as the director of the board of elections in Defiance County, a relatively small jurisdiction of roughly 40,000 people in northwestern Ohio.

The county seat is the city of Defiance, named after a military fort built in 1794 by the Founding Father General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The county also includes three villages, 12 townships, and a number of unincorporated areas. In the early 1800s, Johnny Appleseed had an apple nursery in the area.

Election administration in Ohio is operated at the county level through a series of bipartisan county boards of elections that each appoint election directors to run and oversee elections. Wichman was hired as the Defiance County Board of Elections in May 2015. Since then, she has administered 20 elections and counting. She is a member of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials, where she serves on its legislative committee. She has also mentored four other counties through a program run by the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.

Before serving on the board of elections, Wichman managed two businesses with her husband. She and her husband also founded a scholarship program through the Defiance Area Foundation for “election ambassadors” as a way to engage and educate high school students in Defiance County.

Since March 2023, she has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy project advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Issue One: How did you end up in this profession?

Tonya Wichman: When I applied for this job, I didn’t even tell my husband. When I told him I had a second interview, he said, “You hate politics.” I do. I really hate politics. But I love that people have a voice. So that was my journey here.

I actually got the job on Election Day in May 2015. I volunteered that day, to see my first election firsthand, and I have been here since. I think you get sucked into elections. Once you understand the process, it makes you want to make sure that it’s getting done correctly.

Issue One: Election administration in the United States is very decentralized, with each state using its own system. In Ohio, each county has a multi-member board of elections that oversees elections. What are the key things that people should know about how boards of election operate in Ohio?

Tonya Wichman: We work in bipartisan teams. Our board is two Democrats and two Republicans, and they review everything we do. We can’t even open a door to a programming room or a ballot room or any equipment without a fob from the other party. We have to walk in and do it together. So there isn’t that “Well, the Republicans are rigging this, or the Democrats are rigging this.” There’s no way we could possibly do something to the other party without them knowing.

In Defiance, we are the prime example of how parties can work together. In the eight and a half years I’ve been here, we’ve only had one no vote on a situation in the office, and that was actually a joke. One board member wanted to see what it felt like to say no, so he said no, we couldn’t buy a water cooler. Everything else has been a unanimous vote.

Issue One: How are elections in Defiance County funded, and what is the current typical price tag of an election?

Tonya Wichman: Each election varies, depending on what you need for it. We had an election earlier this year that cost us $16,000 because it was one location with three precincts. We didn’t need as many poll workers. We didn’t have as much testing or ballots mailed or anything like that. The August special election, with everything that we had to do last minute, probably cost us $60,000 to $65,000. It just depends on what requirements we have for each election.

This year, they changed the ID law, and we added a poll book, a check-in book, at our help desks where people go if they’re not registered correctly or have the wrong ID. It was about $18,000 to add those. We had a lot more provisional ballots because of the new law, which went into place without a lot of education being done.

We had Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding for our equipment, which was great. But there’s no HAVA money there to sustain it. The yearly contract that we do for upgrades is close to $60,000. That funding is all out of the county budget. We have to pull that money from local taxpayers, even though we’re doing all of the upgrades to run state and federal elections.

Issue One: Many people are surprised to learn that the federal government doesn’t routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should routinely invest in elections?

Tonya Wichman: It would be nice to have consistent funding. If we don’t have consistent money, we don’t know from year to year if we can upgrade anything. And there are some counties that have to beg their commissioners for their funds every year.

I’ve already been informed by four different companies that our expenses are going up. We have a new security system that we have to put in place. We had to add a dropbox camera. It’s $1,200 an election just to run that camera. That wasn’t funded before, but it was put in place by a mandate from the state. The Election Assistance Commission is putting some new standards on election equipment, so that’s going to cost money. And we know the batteries in our tablets for voting are going to need to be upgraded within the next year or two. Those are $90 apiece, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you times it by 165, plus the maintenance costs, those types of things add up.

Issue One: Do you think federal politicians realize how much it costs to run elections?

Tonya Wichman: No. In Ohio, we charge back the costs of elections to all of the local entities when we run their elections. If we did chargebacks to the federal government, they’d be shocked at how much it costs us to run their portion!

In the presidential election, I will need more poll workers than we’ve ever had. We’re going to have extra hours. We will work about 40 days straight by the time we get done. I don’t think they realize that when they draw out the masses of people, that takes more manpower.

Issue One: If your jurisdiction had extra funding, how would you spend it?

Tonya Wichman: My biggest priority is the people that work for me, my poll workers. If you don’t have good people running your elections, it doesn’t matter how secure you are. You have to care about the people that work for you.

I would also upgrade to the latest version of all of the equipment. I don’t have to worry about getting to the point where I was in 2018, where we were taking parts from other machines to make the other parts work because they didn’t make them anymore. But it would be nice to have money for consistent upgrades, or even maintenance. There are a lot of counties that do maintenance every other year because they can’t afford to do more frequent maintenance.

Issue One: How many voters are on the rolls in your jurisdiction? And what are some of the challenges you face in a jurisdiction of that size?

Tonya Wichman: About 26,000. Part of our struggle is we have just two full-time employees. So we wear every hat — IT, programming, scheduling, training, everything.

We have four part-time clerks that are amazing. We’re really lucky to have them. But when the state sends out directives and gives us things we have to get done in a certain timeframe, I don’t think they realize that larger counties have departments for everything. We’re just piling on top of everything that we had to do already.

That’s a struggle. We put in a lot of extra hours. And unfortunately, I don’t know that hiring more people is actually the solution. The county doesn’t really have the money to do something like that.

Issue One: Earlier this year, you came to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and policymakers as a part of a bipartisan advocacy effort organized by Issue One’s Faces of Democracy campaign. What were your key takeaways from those conversations and meetings?

Tonya Wichman: The camaraderie and everyone being there for the same purpose gave me more of a sense of hope that there are people out there willing to stand up and fight for what’s right. The members of Congress we spoke to listened to our stories and listened to our concerns. That was just an amazing experience. I think there needs to be more communication with the people who are running elections. We’re more than willing to be a source of information for lawmakers on how things work, how things would actually work if a new law was implemented, or what issues a new law may cause.

Issue One: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think isn’t told enough or isn’t widely understood enough?

Tonya Wichman: One thing that is missing is that it’s people running these elections. They’re your neighbors. They’re your friends. They’re people you go to church with. My poll worker list, I know every single one of them. One is the girl that cuts my hair. One is my church organist. My parents have worked here. Everybody that is involved in my life in some way or another I have begged to be poll workers. People need to realize nobody’s out to get anybody. Election workers are your community. We’re not outside invaders or corrupt politicians.

Issue One: You’ve said that election officials across the country have been going through a mental health “crisis” in the wake of the 2020 election, leaving many “broken and exhausted.” What do you think state and federal lawmakers should be doing to combat this crisis?

Tonya Wichman: There should be some laws made about misinformation and disinformation. No matter how hard we try to explain, people say, “Well we saw it on the news. We saw it here. We saw it there.” That type of thing needs to be addressed. I’m all about free speech. I completely understand people have a right to free speech. But there’s a right to know the truth, and there has to be a balance. Our platform is not nearly as large as some of the people whose platforms reach out to hundreds of thousands of people, giving them the wrong information about what’s happening. That’s a struggle that I think we’re going to see expand.

We’re losing people to the threats and the stress. People say so many derogatory things about how we do our job, saying they’re going to charge you with treason or take everything you have because it’s provided by taxpayer money. There needs to be protection for election officials who are doing their jobs, and I’d like to see some federal funding go to stopping mis- and disinformation on social media platforms.

My work as an election official helps ensure everyone has their voices heard. That’s what keeps me in this job year after year. But now, I am worried about my own safety as well as the safety of everyone working in elections across the country. All it would take is one angry, unhinged person with an online account to dox, threaten, or come after any of us.

Issue One: Earlier this year, you traveled to Sierra Leone with the Carter Center to observe elections in Africa. What did you learn from this experience? 

Tonya Wichman: It’s been an interesting year. Last November, I got to a really bad point where I was ready to leave. Election Day was really tough for me. I just felt like I was done. I had been praying for patience and perspective, and through this trip, I got more perspective than I ever thought I would ever see in my life. I think I got more out of the experience than I gave them.

In Sierra Leone, they were so excited to vote, despite the fact that they were threatened. There were areas we were in where signs were put up that said, “If you vote for this party, we’re going to burn down your houses and kill your families.” But they were still lined up to vote. And they know if they vote because they ink their fingers.

Democracy is something huge, and something we take for granted. In Sierra Leone, they’ve only had democracy for about 20 years, since the end of their civil war. You could just see the celebration when everything was done for the night, the joy of getting to be a part of it. In the United States, we’re begging people to be poll workers. It was just such a difference. I want to bring that excitement back here.

Making sure that my people feel joy in giving democracy to our county, that was kind of a reset for me. We have one job here — to hear the people’s voices.

Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies? Or what’s a fun fact that most people might not know about you?

Tonya Wichman: I have five grandkids, so, basically, any free time I have is with them or doing something fun with my husband. We like to take the grandkids to the zoo and to Cedar Point [an amusement park]. Just doing fun stuff that lets the kids be kids.

Issue One: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have had an opportunity to meet and why?

Tonya Wichman: I would have loved to meet the suffragettes that were standing up for women to vote, the entire group of them. I probably would have been one of the girls in the white dresses with the sash going “Let women vote.” People don’t even realize that just a century ago women weren’t voting, let alone running elections.

Issue One: What is your favorite book or movie?

Tonya Wichman: My favorite book is one I read recently. It’s called Fervent. It teaches you how to pray for the right things — not just for what you think you need. That’s my favorite book right now because it has led me to so many places.

That’s how I ended up praying for patience and perspective. It led me to the perspective that I never thought I would see, in a country I had never dreamed of going to.

Going forward, I could definitely see myself going on any mission that [the Carter Center] gives me. I would go anywhere in the world to make sure democracy is set up.


Note: This piece was cross-published with The Fulcrum.