COLUMBUS (WCMH) — When Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced he was going to hold an in-person day of voting to complete the March 17 Primary Election on June 2, he caught immediate heat and pushback from lawmakers.
Lawmakers correctly pointed out that they alone have the ability to set a date for an election under state law. Nearly two weeks after the polls were closed on Election Day due to the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to extend absentee voting for the Primary Election until April 28.
The legislature decided all voting would be done by mail with the exception of in-person voting for a small group of people on the 28th — those with disabilities and the homeless. With his plan rejected, LaRose ordered all 88 counties Board of Elections to follow through on what the legislature decided.
His office sent post cards out to all registered voters in the state, regardless if they had voted already or not, informing them of how to vote by mail. Postage was pre-paid on envelopes so voters could return their ballots without worrying about needing a stamp. Millions of dollars were spent.
However, there were glaring problems the legislature did not address.
The first of which was the two-step process for participating. Unlike the State of Washington, which ships each registered voter a ballot, lawmakers kept in place the requesting process, adding several steps separated by days of mail processing.
This reliance on the postal service ended up being an unforeseen or unaccounted for obstacle, as delays with mail processing and delivery have added to the current problem of some Ohioans not having received their requested ballot the day before the election.
Which leads to the second problem, which is not shifting deadlines to compensate for mail delivery.
Under normal circumstances, some people receive mail two days after it is shipped; others see it in three; still for others, it can take up to seven days. Because there have been delays in postal service, what should have taken a normal amount of time could be arriving late because of how COVID-19 impacted a particular area’s postal service.
Had the legislature moved the final date to request the ballot back to ensure everyone who requests a ballot will get it in the mail several days before the deadline to turn it in, then perhaps more people would have their ballot in hand today.
As it is in Franklin County, on the eve of the last day to turn in ballots for the extended election, there are more than 40,000 requested ballots unaccounted for. They have been shipped to the voters, but they have not yet been returned.
Some of those ballots most certainly have arrived. People were dropping them off on Monday afternoon. However, a portion of those ballots may not have reached their recipients and if they do not get them Tuesday, the only option those voters will have is to come and vote a provisional ballot in person.
No one knows how many are stuck somewhere in the mail, so for this hypothetical let’s say that number is just 10% of those 40,000 unaccounted for ballots; that boils down to about 4,000 people that would need to come and vote provisional. But there is a big problem.
Because the board of elections has to make the health and safety of voters it’s number one priority, the most voters they say they can get through their voting system in an hour is 250. Normally, without having to account for COVID-19, they can pack in more than 700 per hour.
“We’ve done all that we can to prepare,” said Ed Leonard, the director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. “We’re going to request voters be patient because we are limited in size and our focus is keeping people safe and processing voters as quickly as we can, but the focus is safety.”
If you are doing the quick math, 250 voters over a 13 hour voting window (6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) only equates to 3,250 voters able to vote while the polls are officially open.
If the actual number of ballots lost in the mail is higher than 10 percent, there is no way all of them could show up and expect to cast a provisional ballot inside the voting window. That window will stay open though for anyone in line at 7:30 p.m., so if there are 1,000 people waiting at that time, it could be 11:30 or later by the time they have all had a chance to vote.
If there are 2,000, you are looking at 3:30 in the morning if everyone stuck it out and didn’t leave.
Plus, there is rain in the forecast. Would you stand in the rain for 6 hours to vote?
Which brings up why voting rights advocates are upset. They say people have been and will be disenfranchised by this process, and they blame the legislature.
“Because the legislature passed such a, I think, poorly thought out and executed plan that did not leave voters or election officials enough time to do a true vote-by-mail election, we could be faced with the specter of a lot of people who did not get their ballot on time showing up to boards of elections tomorrow,” said Mark Brickner with All Voting is Local.
The League of Women Voters of Ohio also leveled the blame squarely on lawmakers shoulders.
“The legislature did drop the ball, they failed to understand how complicated changing to a vote by mail system would be and how long that could take,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the LWVO.
Voting rights advocates want voters to call 1-866-OUR-VOTE if they experience any problems at all voting Tuesday. They are documenting all of the issues so that they can be used to address them and develop a better plan for the next election in November.
Because it is commonly accepted that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it is likely it will be around in November and could impact the nation’s ability to conduct an election if steps are not taken immediately to prepare for such an eventuality.
The Franklin County Board of Elections agrees that plans need to be developed immediately just in case the Presidential General Election has to also be conducted by mail. They are urging lawmaker to listen to elections officials like LaRose, and themselves, and the voting rights groups who are advocating on behalf of the voter.
While they urge for that, the LWVO is asking for you to lend your voice to the effort.
“The legislature is not going to act unless every day Ohioans push them to act. So right now, today, if you have a difficult time with this process, or you are unhappy with how the primary ran, one thing you can do is just call your legislator and tell them your experience,” said Miller. “Help them understand what you and voters like you are experiencing.”
As for tomorrow and the prospect of having to go out and stand in line in the rain vote a provisional ballot, Miller says, “We just need to encourage voters to wear their masks, to wash their hands, to stand at a distance. Let’s hope for nice weather so that those lines if they need to extend outside, it’s far easier to have that space.”
State and Federal law says that if you show up on election day, you can request a provisional ballot. That provisional ballot will be counted after it is verified that you are indeed allowed to cast a ballot for the election in question.
For disabled and homeless voters, you will need to sign an affidavit affirming you are indeed a member of that class of voters. Lying on this form is a crime. Do not be temped to claim you are disabled or homeless if you are not, or you risk legal ramifications.