Ohio Election Officials Want Smoother Vote-By-Mail Process In November

Flying Puerto Rico and U.S. flags, voter advocates on "La Caravana de la Democracia" wave vote-by-mail applications.
Flying Puerto Rican and U.S. flags, as they cruised Cleveland's West Side neighborhoods, voter advocates on "La Caravana de la Democracia" wave vote-by-mail applications. [Seth T. Adam Photography]
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Ten days before Ohio’s rescheduled primary election, Selina Pagán and other volunteers drove through neighborhoods on Cleveland’s West Side to hand out vote-by-mail applications from a safe distance.

They called it La Caravana de la Democracia. It was the group’s “shot in the dark” to help Spanish-speaking voters after the coronavirus pushed the election from polling places to the postal system.

“It may not have made the biggest impact for this election,” Pagán, the president of the Young Latino Network, told ideastream. “But for the few people that we did hit up and were able to cast their ballot, that’s important.”

Ohio election officials and voting advocates now hope to simplify the state’s two-step absentee ballot process before the November general election. Currently, voters must request an absentee ballot application or print one out, fill it out correctly, send it back to their local board of elections and wait for a ballot to arrive in the mail.

“There are a lot of things that need to change about this process,” Pagán said. “This vote-by-mail process is not easy for our community.”

One proposal in the state legislature would allow voters to request absentee ballots online. That bill has the backing of Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who also supports proactively mailing a postage-paid ballot request form to all registered voters.  

“I don’t want to require, exclusively, vote by mail,” LaRose said. “I want to make in-person voting available. But we need to encourage the use of vote-by-mail for anybody that wants to do it.”

LaRose said he also would like to move back the deadline for requesting absentee ballots to a week before the election, giving election boards more time to fulfill last-minute requests.

And November’s election, as LaRose wrote in an op-ed this week, will not be postponed like the primary was.

Local election officials across the state want the legislature to sort out those questions sooner rather than later, so they have time to prepare for whatever challenges the general election throws their way. Voter turnout is expected to be much higher in November, and there’s no telling what sort of social distancing guidelines may still be in effect.

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to be an increased reliance on mail voting, even if we are able somehow to go back to the normal for November,” said Aaron Ockerman, the director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

When the Ohio state legislature rescheduled forbade most in-person voting and set April 28 as the final day of the primary, local boards of elections hustled to order more envelopes and other supplies.

Election officials in Portage County bought new paper stock in order to print ballots as requests arrived in the mail, director Faith Lyon said. In an effort to turn around requests quickly, the board left by the wayside the many blank ballots already printed for in-person voting.

“Time did not allow us to be able to go and sift through our ballots that were already prepared for Election Day to reuse those for mail,” Lyon said.

Around 5 p.m. on April 28, Lyon said, about 2,000 ballots arrived at the Ravenna office. An even bigger ballot surge had already flooded the board of elections in more populous Cuyahoga County that morning.

“We anticipated large volume of ballots on the 28th,” Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Tony Perlatti said. “We did not anticipate the 23,000 that we received.”

Staff wearing masks set to work verifying and scanning those multi-page ballots. They completed the count around 2 a.m.

Perlatti hopes the legislature will decide by next month how to conduct November’s election.

“We can prepare for whatever I think comes our way, as long as we are given enough notice,” he said. “And that ‘enough notice’ is hopefully sometime in June.”

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