Amid the turbulence of a growing public health crisis, Ohio voters were faced with confusion, fear and, ultimately, a delay of in-person voting. WISH Cleveland would like to help readers understand what happened, what options lie ahead, and what voters can do in the meantime.
In-person voting thwarted by pandemic dangers
On March 13, a coalition of voter rights organizations released a letter advocating for Ohio’s legislature and Secretary of State to make voting easier in light of the current public health crisis. “We were encountering a lot of individuals who — because COVID-19 was so fast-breaking — weren’t able to vote early,” said Mike Brickner, the Ohio State director of All Voting is Local. “People with disabilities or chronic illnesses couldn’t leave their houses on Election Day or to early-vote, but also couldn’t get an absentee ballot fast enough.” There are two steps to legally vote by mail in Ohio. First, you have to request and submit an application for a ballot. Then you have to mail the completed ballot to the Board of Elections.
In addition, polling locations at nursing homes were being shut down; this meant that residents of those homes would be unable to vote. Efforts to let them vote with absentee ballots turned out to be logistically complex. Beyond that, health warnings for older Ohioans— compounded by the closures of schools, libraries, bars, and restaurants—meant that seasoned poll workers were anxiously calling off. Boards of Elections lacked time or means to safely replace them. Even the logistics of getting adequate cleaning supplies to polling locations became unrealistic.
Amidst all of this, an announcement came that there would be curbside voting available to all voters. The logistics of this were unclear, even to local Boards of Elections and the poll workers who would have to implement the plan.
Why so late?
“A lot of the confusion was the breakneck speed of the changes,” said Brickner. The number of closed polling locations kept going up the week before Ohio’s scheduled Election Day — 50, 75, 100, then 155 polling location changes up until last Thursday [March 12]. Boards of Elections and voting rights groups were challenged to inform voters about the last-minute changes. “What seemed safe on Friday, it became clear that it wasn’t safe on Monday,” said Mia Lewis, Campaigns Director at Common Cause Ohio.
According to Lewis, if the governor had gone to the legislature two weeks earlier to request to move Election Day, the notion would have been rejected as dramatic and premature. The governor’s cabinet decided they would prioritize other aspects of the health crisis and try to power through the election.
“It became clear at the very last minute that it would not be possible,” said Lewis.
In a March 17 press conference, the governor reflected on what happened: “We thought we would go into court and get an order to allow ample time for absentee voting and move Election Day to June 2. That didn’t happen. We were faced with a decision to explain that to poll workers and voters very quickly.”
On March 16, a denial from Franklin County Court of Common Pleas came just before 8:00 p.m. The governor stated that the director of health and he acted quickly with an executive order to force the closure of polling locations because they wanted to “get [information] out by the 10:00 news and the 11:00 news.” Unfortunately, a flurry of social media confusion persisted until the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in support of the order at 4:00 a.m., March 17.
In-person voting did not occur on March 17.
The election was NOT canceled.
Rachel Coyle, Ohio State Democrats’ campaign director and co-founder of How Things Work at the Ohio Statehouse, said, “We do not yet know if in-person voting will be canceled altogether or if there will be a make-up Primary Election Day.”
If the court or state legislature decides not to hold a make-up Primary Election Day, the already-filed early votes and absentee ballots would be counted. Clearly, that would leave a lot of voters disenfranchised.
“Like everybody else,” said Lewis, “even the people who are responsible are frustrated with how things turned out. I don’t think any individual is horribly to blame. I truly believe that whatever they did, there would have been lawsuits.”
The Ohio legislature (the Ohio House and Senate) has not yet acted but will return to Columbus the week of March 23 to address the cancellation of in-person voting. “Ohioans need the Statehouse or the courts to act quickly to set a new date — even if it’s mail-in only for people’s safety. State leaders shouldn’t just leave us in limbo,” said Coyle.
The issue at hand now is the cut-off date for voting. There are four variables of concern:
- Local issues that need to be decided before the start of the coming fiscal year (e.g., school levies that are not decided by June 1 could result in teacher layoffs).
- The Ohio Democratic Party has filed a court case requesting an April 28 Election Day so Ohio votes can be included in the national nomination — this case calls for a rapid transition to mail-in ballots only.
- The unknown time frame of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
- The logistics of printing, distributing and processing distinct ballots for each precinct by that deadline.
While a shift to vote-by-mail sounds like a nice and fair idea, “In a perfect world,” said Common Causes’s Lewis, “you wouldn’t switch suddenly to vote-by-mail.” Usually, when states transition from primarily in-person voting to complete vote-by-mail, there is a transition period of a few years. Sudden implementation is difficult and will inevitably leave some voters disenfranchised, Lewis noted, especially those needing in-person accommodations. For example, a visually impaired voter might not be able to read or mark a ballot without assistance. At in-person voting, specially adapted machines allow that voter to cast a ballot unassisted.
What’s the impact of all this?
“In the end, making that decision will have saved lives and — assuming that voting is allowed to go forward in some form — fewer people will have been disenfranchised than otherwise would have been the case,” said Lewis. “If this had gone on as planned, think about the volume of people who would not have been able to vote without putting their health at risk. I think the governor and the Secretary of State are right when they say people shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote.”
Per Coyle, if Ohio does not hold a make-up Election Day, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans will be prevented from exercising their right to vote. Levies that communities desperately need could fail. And voters will not have a chance to weigh-in on competitive primary elections for Congress, Statehouse, sheriff, and more.
Next steps: We still need to advocate for a fair election
Mobilize the Vote organizer Sue Dean-Dyke said Ohioans need to make their voices heard. “Put pressure on the state legislature and be public about your opinion,” said Dean-Dyke. Without constituent pressure, the state legislature has no reason to expedite the transition to vote-by-mail.
- Get ready to vote. If you have not yet voted, go online at www.voteohio.gov and request a ballot today. If you have an absentee ballot, hold it until a solution has been finalized so your postmark will be valid.
- Voice your concern to those with legislative power. Send an email or make a phone call insisting that the Statehouse vote on a make-up Primary Election Day. Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (614-466-2500 or Rep72@OhioHouse.gov); Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof (614-466-7505 or Obhof@OhioSenate.gov); Contact the primary candidates on your ballot, as they are eager to connect with voters while the election is pending.
- Share this article via social media/text/email to increase awareness and encourage ongoing advocacy. You can also write a letter to the editor. Sharing a personal story can have a powerful impact in times like this.
- Stay informed. In addition to the groups listed above, we recommend following these reliable sources of information: The League of Women Voters, State Representative Emilia Sykes; State Senator Kenny Yuko; How Things Work at the Ohio Statehouse.
Photo credit: Hattie Nichols. Thank you!