Ohio elections: What happens if November’s ballots must be all-absentee again?

Butler County Board of Elections says there are lessons learned from the 2020 presidential primary. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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Butler County Board of Elections says there are lessons learned from the 2020 presidential primary. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

County boards of elections across Ohio last month completed a nearly unimaginable 2020 presidential primary: an extended all-absentee effort amid a global pandemic.

Ohio’s lawmakers reset the 2020 presidential primary election to April 28, after the DeWine Administration declared a public health emergency and canceled any mass gatherings over 10 people — which included Election Day polling locations. But there was no in-person voting at precincts throughout the counties.

As the state prepares for more uncertainty leading into November’s general election, experts say Ohio proved it could handle gathering voters’ wishes in an unusual way, although the state’s top election official would like to see some changes.

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“That is in the finest traditions of American democracy and should give us all confidence that, even if we are still grappling with the effects of a global pandemic in the fall, we will still be able to conduct our elections for federal, state and local offices as normal, just as Americans have always done throughout our history,” said Miami University Regionals political science professor John Forren.

County elections officials met last week to prepare for various scenarios, including a repeat of an all-absentee ballot election and social distancing among election workers and voters.

But time is one of the more important commodities all of Ohio’s boards of elections need, said Eric Corbin, the county elections board deputy director.

“The longer it takes to decide that (plan), the harder it’s going to be for any board of elections around Ohio to justify spending money on a device, piece of equipment (before the plan is made) that they may or may not need,” Corbin said.

This primary was on pace to match the 2016 primary’s high primary turnout before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of Ohio. The results, however, mirrored the low turnout of the 2012 primary.

Only 18.44 percent of Butler County’s registered voters participated in the 2020 primary, and 18.45 percent of the county’s 2012 voting population participated eight years ago, according to unofficial and official election results.

But Ohioans had more obstacles to climb this primary, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said.

“What drives voter participation in a primary is really how competitive the top of the ticket race is, and obviously the presidential primary was not that exciting by the time this thing was over as both parties knew who their nominee was going to be,” he said.

LaRose has proposed four changes to help voters and elections officials in this November’s general election that will see President Donald Trump challenged by former Vice President Joe Biden and several battles for congressional seats across the state.

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“We don’t need big, radical changes to the way Ohio runs elections because we have a fundamentally strong, sound system of running elections,” LaRose said. “Historically, we’ve given voters a lot of choices.”

Proposed changes include:

• allow voters to request vote-by-mail ballots online, something LaRose proposed five years ago in the Ohio Senate

• mail postage-paid absentee ballot request forms and include postage-paid return envelopes for ballots, paid with already-allocated federal funds.

• make the vote-by-mail ballot request deadline a week before the election as opposed to the Saturday prior.

LaRose said moving the request deadline will help counties like Butler that received record numbers of absentee ballots on Election Day. The county received 9,000 ballots on April 28, which is more than 2-1/2 times the number of ballots it ever received in one day (October 2016).

High vote-by-mail numbers are anticipated in November as election officials say more people like the easy of voting from home and many will still fear COVID-19 during flu season. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said in March there are indications COVID-19 could return this fall.

Because of the anticipated increase in vote-by-mail ballots, LaRose is also asking the state legislature to release its election-related federal funds for elections staffing and back-end processing equipment.

He said some boards of elections may have fewer polling locations in November as his office has heard some of Ohio’s election boards indicate past venue hosts, like churches and community centers, won’t make their facilities available this November because of COVID-19 fears.

“The boards of elections need time to prepare, and with the bipartisan support of their board need to consolidate those polling locations, and staff them up correctly,” he said.

Butler County officials say none of their polling location hosts have backed out for November.


WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

We asked political experts their reactions to the 2020 presidential primary. Here’s what they said:

Miami University Regionals political science professor John Forren: One thing the 2020 primary showed is "voting by mail does work, even in a large state like Ohio."

“Even though there were reasons to expect a lot of confusion and chaos in the primary — with the last-minute closing of the polls in March and the quick switchover to mail-in voting — it worked quite well overall. It provided a good field test of what mail-in voting might look like if we are forced to go that route in November. And if the primary is any indication, Ohioans should feel quite confident that our elections officials, at both the state and local levels, are very well prepared to conduct a fair and orderly election, whether by mail or in-person, in November.

Cedarville University political science professor Mark C. Smith: There aren't too many lessons that can be drawn from the 2020 presidential primary, but said, "Assuming we have in-person voting in November, we may have two different voting systems in the spring and fall.

“We also had a primary date moved at the last minute, which also influenced turnout and campaign spending. Finally, a primary election in the middle of a pandemic is so odd and unusual that it is difficult to think we can generalize from, even to an election several months later. The results from the primary are obviously important, but they are not all that helpful for considering what might take place in November.”

BALLOTS RETURNED

The Butler County Board of Elections processed 9,000 vote-by-mail paper ballots on Election Day in the prolonged 2020 presidential primary. The most single-day ballots received were in the 2016 presidential general election and the 2018 gubernatorial election:

• 3,336 on Oct. 19, 2016

• 2,906 on Oct. 17, 2016

• 2,306 on Oct. 24, 2016

• 2,191 on Oct. 26, 2016

•1,879 on Oct. 17, 2018

• 1,853 on Oct. 22, 2018

• 1,816 on Oct. 18, 2018

• 1,312 on Nov. 5, 2018

Source: Butler County Board of Elections

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