COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Official results of the extended March 17 Primary Election are being sent to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office this week, as the canvassing process comes to a close.
One of the big questions revolved around how many of the provisional ballots cast on April 28 would actually count. It turns out, in several counties, not that many.
After the Ohio Department of Health closed polls the day before the election, forcing the primary to be placed on hold and eventually extended, it was left to the legislature to determine exactly how to complete the election after four weeks of early in-person voting had already occurred, but millions of Ohioans had not made it to the polls to cast the ballots.
The solution lawmakers came up with was to have every registered voter who wanted to vote and had not already done so, vote an absentee ballot by mail.
The General Assembly passed a bill that put that change into law, and provided two exceptions for a single day of in-person voting; one for the disabled and another for the homeless. Both groups still needed to be registered to vote in order to do so and they could vote in-person on April 28.
As the weeks went by and the global pandemic worsened, so did the delays with the U.S. Postal Service. About a week before the last day of the election, a decision was made that voters who had requested a ballot but did not receive it in time to fill it out and get it postmarked by April 27 could also vote in-person on April 28 using provisional ballots.
The difference between a provisional ballot and an absentee ballot is strictly when they are counted. Absentee ballots are counted on election day. Provisional ballots are counted weeks later after they have been verified.
Provisional ballots are used for people whose eligibility is in question. In the case of this primary election, the question was mainly whether voters had requested an absentee ballot or not.
Because the legislature only carved out exceptions for the disabled and homeless people to vote in-person, to help limit the spread of COVID-19, no one else was supposed to be able to vote in person.
In a normal election, if someone shows up on Election Day and wants to vote, they are allowed to do so. However, if that person is not in the poll book for that precinct, they are given a provisional ballot to vote on. Most times, if the person is indeed a registered voter in Ohio, things work out and their ballot is ultimately accepted.
Being registered to vote was not enough to participate in this year’s primary. Voters were required to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail to be eligible to vote.
The day before the election, voter rights advocates argued that provisional ballots should be counted if the voter is a registered voter in the State of Ohio and they voted in-person at the county board of elections headquarters.
Ultimately, the Secretary of State disagreed and directed boards of election to follow the law the state legislature passed, which allowed the only people to vote in person to be those who were disabled or homeless and those who are allowed to vote because they had not received their ballot due to delays with the postal service.
This week, the Franklin County Board of Elections released the following numbers:
- 1192 voters cast a provisional ballot in-person on April 28th.
- 282 were accepted and counted
- 901 ballots were cast from people who never requested an absentee ballot.
Similar situations were found in other counties. Licking County reported nearly 100 people had voted in-person on a provisional ballot in the first four hours on Election Day. Franklin County, which has many more voters, reported 200 in that same time period.
The Licking County numbers dwindled as the day went on, but ultimately it saw the same result as the Franklin County Board of Elections. Of the 317 in-person provisional ballots cast, 27 were determined to be valid and accepted because the voter had indeed requested an absentee ballot before hand.
Election officials cited a lack of voter education to contribute to the confusion. Voter rights advocates blame the timetable set up by the legislature. It selected the April 28th date contributing to that lack of education. They say pushing the election into mid-May would have provided more time to reach more voters about the necessity of going through the vote-by-mail process.
Regardless, all of this is behind us and just about everyone is moving on. Even voter rights advocates say trying to take this to court would be futile right now, given the circumstances and current state of affairs. County bsoard of election are also moving ahead and starting to prepare for November. With a Presidential Election on the horizon, they are making plans without knowing for sure how that election will be run.
They are assuming it will be held as a normal election, with in-person voting. However, in a COVID-19 affected world, changes are being proposed. Those changes include reducing the number of polling locations on election day to limit spread of the virus. Other proposals call for increasing the number of early in-person voting locations to open up access to more voters.
There are several other options on the table and the legislature has to decide what to do. It also needs to make that decision by the end of June, in order to give county boards of election time to purchase, install, and test equipment. This would also give the boards time to do the voter education if things are not going to be normal for the election, and that includes reducing the number of polling locations.
The Legislature gave boards of election and voters 30 days to figure out how to participate in the Primary Election. Advocates do not think that was enough time. Hopefully four months will be, if they make their decisions by the end of June.
The second factor that is putting a soft deadline for lawmakers to act by the end of June is their normal summer break. It begibns during that time period and in an election year where every House of Representatives seat is up for grabs, lawmakers do not return to the Statehouse to vote on bills until after the Election in November. They use that long summer break that stretches into the fall to campaign so they can be re-elected.
If nothing changes, and polls stay open to the general public on Election Day in November, then the provisional ballot validation issue we saw with the Primary Election should not be a problem. However, if things change, elections officials say they need to be notified as soon as possible so they can begin the voter education process on those changes in order to provide a fair election.