Q&A: Northeast Ohio Election Boards Field Thousands Of Absentee Requests

Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. [Tony Dejak / AP]
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Northeast Ohioans aren’t wasting any time requesting absentee ballots for the November election.

Tens of thousands of people – at least – have sent in their request forms to local boards of elections. Many may be trying to avoid voting in person during the pandemic, while getting out ahead of any delays in the mail.

ideastream’s Nick Castele talked with All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer about how local election boards are preparing.

Just how big is this early surge in ballot requests?

It’s quite big. As a few examples here: Portage County usually sees around 500 ballot requests by the middle of August. This year, they have 5,000 requests in. Cuyahoga County has processed 40,000 ballot requests as of the end of last week. And Summit County is seeing a big jump, too: They’ve received 24,000 requests as of Tuesday.

“The people we have working in the absentee department have been working in that department for a number of years, and there’s no doubt that what we’ve seen so far as of this date, the middle of August, that we are far exceeding anything we’ve ever seen before,” Lance Reed, the director of the Summit County Board of Elections, told ideastream.

And this is what election officials have been encouraging. They’ve said if you want to vote by mail, get your request in early.

It sounds like election boards don’t want people to wait until the last minute to get their requests in.

No, they definitely don’t. The latest possible time that you can request an absentee ballot is Saturday, Oct. 31. You’ve got to have your request in the hands of board officials by noon on that day.

Faith Lyon is the director of the Portage County Board of Elections. She said that late deadline to request a ballot — basically, it gives voters a false hope.

“It’s something for many years we have fought. We don’t like it. It’s misleading,” Lyon said. “And that is why we did try to have that deadline moved back, so it’s more realistic and attainable for our voters. Unfortunately, the legislature did not see that that was something they were going to pass at the time.”

Now, the boards will begin mailing out the ballots that have been requested Oct. 6, which is four weeks before the election. Those have got to be postmarked by the post office by Nov. 2. That is the day before the election. And to count, the board has got to receive that no later than 10 days after the election.

That’s cutting things very close, and that’s why board officials are saying, get your request in now.

What are boards hearing from local post offices about the turnaround time for ballots?

Board directors I spoke with say they have been in touch with local postal officials who they work with more directly. The postal service general counsel warned Ohio and a lot of other states that there’s just a risk that U.S. Postal Service will not be able to turn around those under-the-wire absentee ballot requests that come in at the last minute.

And even the president of the postal union local here in the Cleveland area has told ideastream he’s heard complaints about delivery delays.

Now we’ve heard the news that the postmaster general says he’s suspending policy changes that were blamed for those slowdowns. We’ll see exactly what that means later on this week when the postmaster general testifies before the Senate.

A lot of the focus has been on early voting, but we should mention you can still cast a ballot in person. That exists. So what will polling places look like?

In Cuyahoga County, the board is trying to maintain 6 feet between voting booths. Now, that might actually mean removing some voting booths from locations.

Anthony Perlatti is the director of the county BOE here in Cuyahoga County. And he’s warned that in-person voting might be slower than it has been in the past.

“Because that’s what happens in a socially distant environment, just like anything we do in our life,” he said. “You go to the grocery store, you need to put a little bit more time in, because things are spread out.”

You can also vote early in person at county boards of elections. And rather than mailing your absentee ballot, you can also drop it off in person at the drop box at each BOE. And you can drop off a ballot request there, too.

Now one last note on masks: Secretary of State Frank LaRose said on Tuesday said he is expecting voters to wear masks in polling places. He says if they don’t have one they’ll be given one, and if they refuse they will be asked to vote outside on the curb.

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