(TNS) — The strife over Ohio’s 2020 primary election, converted at the last minute last month to a largely vote-by-mail election over the coronavirus pandemic, has cast a new light on whether the state elections system is capable of handling an all-mail election in November if need be.
Models currently project the worst of the coronavirus outbreak will recede by the summer. But past pandemics have seen a second wave break out. And with a widespread vaccine not likely to be available for more than a year, there is a distinct possibility that elections officials could be confronted with a similar scenario in November.
Voter advocates, elected officials and elections workers say Gov. Mike DeWine and other leaders need to begin planning soon just in case. They want to prevent a repeat of what happened in March, when DeWine canceled Election Day, citing public health reasons, just hours before in-person voting was to have begun.
The decision set off public confusion, a flurry of lawsuits and eventually, a new election plan, unanimously approved by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, that sets an effectively all-mail vote through April 28.
“It requires a conversation to be had with all the stakeholders,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat. “We have to do it quickly, and we have to do it soon, so we’re not left scrambling as we were with the primary.”
“There are all kinds of systems and protocols that need to be started up right now,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, which supports offering in-person voting options. “Even now, I don’t know that we’ll have time to do it well by fall, to be honest.”
Unlike some other states, Ohio has had widespread vote by mail for years. But converting to an all-mail vote would require boards of elections to process millions more ballots than they have in the past.
Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, which represents county boards of election, said if the state thinks the coronavirus could disrupt the November election, elections workers are looking for more advance notice than they got last time.
“If things operate normally, and we have an in-person election, there are no substantive policy changes that need to be made,” he said. “But if we are looking at doing a vote-by-mail election, then there are definitely some things that need to happen.”
Lawmakers Consider ‘Emergency’ Scenario
House Speaker Larry Householder, a Perry County Republican, didn’t make himself available for comment for this story. But he said in a Tuesday radio interview that there haven’t been any “in-depth discussions” on the topic.
He said lawmakers are looking into developing an election plan that could be deployed in the event of any type of emergency.
“Quite frankly, we think everything is going to be fine,’ Householder said on WOSU’s ‘All Sides with Ann Fisher.’ “I believe, though, when the General Assembly comes back, whenever that is, there’s going to be some additional discussion in the hallways and committee rooms about what we do in the event of an emergency.”
State Rep. Niraj Antani, a Dayton Republican, has begun researching what other states have done in the case of an emergency. In an interview, he was quick to emphasize it could apply for something like a natural disaster, not necessarily a pandemic.
“We can’t have elections if people don’t have confidence in them,” he said. “So I think having a permanent contingency would be confidence-inspiring for the public."
Voter-rights groups prefer that some form of limited in-person voting be offered. Alternative options could be a wider prevalence of drop-boxes where people can physically drop off their completed ballots, said Miller with the Ohio League of Women Voters.
But, she said there are changes the state could make that could be used whether or not there are public health concerns about in-person voting in November, like making it easier to get a mail-in ballot.
“We don’t want to preclude in-person voting. But I think we could make vote by mail super easy and more attractive to people,” she said.
Householder, the Ohio House Speaker, said the possibility of fraud is a consideration as lawmakers consider their elections plan.
“There’s a lot of people in the state of Ohio who really like to go to the polls on Election Day,” he said. “It’s a holiday for them. And also, we’re very concerned about fraud, frankly. It makes the system a lot easier to try to manipulate.”
On a statistical level, that statement hasn’t been borne out in Ohio’s experience.
In the 2012 and 2016 general elections, then-Secretary of Secretary of State Jon Husted, who’s now lieutenant governor, mailed absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state.
In both elections, 1.9 million Ohioans, about a third of the overall vote, cast mail ballots.
Husted, a Republican, oversaw voter-fraud investigations after both elections.
In 2012, his office found 132 cases of possible fraud that were referred to prosecutors. In 2016, they found 52 such cases. Both are a minute fraction of the roughly 5.6 million ballots that were cast. Husted, now Ohio’s lieutenant governor, testified before an elections-integrity panel appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017 that voter fraud “exists” but is “rare.”
At least 21 states have provisions to allow elections to be conducted entirely by mail, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.
Many states defer to local officials, and some limit the types of elections that can be done by mail only.
But five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – conduct their elections by mail statewide, according to the NCSL.
Potential advantages include voter convenience and cost savings, the National Conference for State Legislatures outlined in a summary. A Pew Charitable Trust study found cost savings of about 40 percent in Colorado.
Potential disadvantages noted by the NCSL included breaking tradition, and possible coercion by family members or others when voting is not done in a private voting booth.
Mail-in Voting Becomes Partisan
The national prospects of a vote-by-mail election in November have rapidly coalesced into a partisan issue. Some Democrats, including Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee, have called for expanded vote-by-mail nationally.
The issue came into especially sharp focus after Wisconsin carried out its primary election on Tuesday, seeing long lines particularly in urban areas as elections officials limited the number of polling places.
“Today in Wisconsin, people are deciding whether to risk their health to exercise their fundamental right to vote. No one should have to make that choice, now or in November,” Brown said on Twitter, echoing a similar argument Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made when he closed Ohio’s polls last month. “We need vote by mail everywhere and increased early voting. And we need it now.”
But Trump, a Republican, has said, without providing evidence, that mail-in voting leads to voter fraud.
“Mail ballots, they cheat, people cheat," Trump said Tuesday during a White House coronavirus briefing. "Mail ballots are very dangerous thing for this country because they're cheaters. They go and collect them. They're fraudulent in many cases.”
Trump, who himself voted by mail in 2018, also posted about the issue on Twitter on Wednesday morning, apparently while watching Fox News.
DeWine was asked about Trump’s comments during his coronavirus briefing on Wednesday. He declined to weigh in on them.
But he said Ohio’s vote-by-mail system is safe.
“It’s safe for people to vote in Ohio, and we’re asking them to do that,” he said.
Issues to Consider
Here are some changes that could be under consideration in Ohio.
One is the state’s process of applying for a mail-in ballot.
Currently, Ohioans who want a mail-in ballot must first fill out a paper form, including their signature. They then have to send it in, and wait for the ballot to be mailed back to them.
The requirement has led to confusion and delays during the current voting period, which is already compressed because of the last-minute cancellation and rescheduling of the primary.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, was not made available for an interview for this story. But he issued a statement calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow for Ohioans to request absentee ballots online, with no paper form involved.
LaRose previously sponsored a similar bill while he was a state senator. The bill is now sponsored by Sen. Theresa Gavarone, a Wood County Republican. It’s drawn no major opposition, and is supported by Ohio elections officials.
”I’ve been hearing about it in light of what’s going on,” Gavarone said. “I think what’s going on really kind of shows why this could be a very useful tool in making it easier for people to vote.”
Another consideration is who gets ballots and absentee ballot applications. In past presidential elections, Ohio has sent ballot applications to everyone in the state.
But Ohio could do a universal mailing of ballots with postage-paid envelopes to every registered voter in the state, said Sykes, the House Democratic leader. This could encourage people to vote early, she said, even if in-person voting ends up being an option.
Another option could be letting voters specify whether they want to permanently get an absentee ballot, instead of making them re-apply every election, according to Miller with the League of Women Voters. Ohio could also make it easier for elections workers to verify signatures by making it more automated, she said, with elections workers taking a closer look for any flagged flagged by the computer as questionable.
Ohio could also extend its mail-in voting period. Currently, absentee voting begins 30 days before an election. Antani, the Dayton-area state representative who’s researching election contingency plans, said he’s open to the idea.
“A month more of mail-in voting would be fine,’ he said. “If there’s a pandemic, in-person voting isn’t smart.”
There’s also the issue of recruiting enough poll workers, who tend to be older, given potential fears over health and safety issues.
Mike Brickner, state director of All Voting is Local, a voting-rights group, has called for increasing poll-worker pay, and relaxing rules that would allow someone to work the polls outside their home county.
Another possible issue is the collection of completed ballots.
Under current law, only a voter or their immediate family member is allowed to handle a completed ballot. LaRose briefly loosened these rules in March, ordering that boards of elections workers could pick up ballots completed by nursing home residents and people who are hospitalized, as long as a member of each party was present. That was before the election was canceled altogether.
Marc Elias, the top legal representative to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2018 re-election campaign, in The Atlantic this week called on states to permit community groups to gather completed ballots.
But Ockerman, the official representing Ohio county elections boards, said one elections official he spoke with recently mentioned the need for clear rules on who can handle completed ballots and who can’t. Some of the more prominent examples of election fraud have involved “ballot harvesting.”
“There are a lot of groups out there who want to be helpful,” he said. “But what about nefarious groups that might collect ballots and not return them?”
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