Sidebar: A look inside Ohio’s first majority mail-in Primary

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This article provided by Stanford University’s Big Local News program and  Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Please join our free mailing list as this helps us provide more public service reporting.

Over the six weeks of Ohio’s historic mail-in primary, Clermont County Board of Elections Director Julia Carney and her small team of staffers spent hours processing over 1,000 absentee ballot applications per day, the papers piling up in four stacks on the counter in their office. 

Armed with hand sanitizer and masks, and social distancing as much as they could, the team processed over 40,000 applications by Election Day. In each of Ohio’s 88 counties, boards of elections were working around the clock to do the same: Even with a low percentage of registered voters showing up to the polls, primary voters submitted absentee ballots in numbers that exceeded those of a higher turnout general election. 

Big Local News requested primary cost summaries from Ohio’s 88 counties, which detail expenses paid toward the primary after March 27, 2020. Twenty six provided records in a standardized format used by Ohio’s Secretary of State. Across these counties, over half of expenses were directed toward hiring temporary staff and postage. 

Those numbers highlight the significant task ahead of Ohio and other states this November, as they prepare for a massive increase in absentee ballot submissions. 

Over the month of April, Ohio became a test case for how to adapt an election for an ongoing pandemic — and a harbinger of exactly how far states will need to go to prepare their election infrastructure for November. 

“The entire voter registration system that we’ve become accustomed to is completely in flux,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor spearheading a research project to promote best practices for election administration amid the pandemic. 

A logistical challenge

Frank LaRose didn’t know he’d end up serving as Ohio Secretary of State in a pandemic when he voted for Ohio Senate Bill 205 in November 2014.

The law prevents the secretary of state from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications unless granted approval by the state assembly — preventing LaRose from making a quick switch to mail-in when COVID-19 stood in the way of Ohio’s March 17 election plans. 

On the day before the election, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced the polls would not be opening the next day, as doing so would place voters and poll workers at an “unacceptable health risk.” DeWine’s decree came after a state judge, earlier that same day, had rejected a temporary restraining order that sought the delay. The contradiction launched confusion across Ohio’s county boards of elections.

“Elections are not meant to be done at a whim,” said Paul Adams, director of Lorain County’s Board of Elections.

After the election was postponed, LaRose proposed sending an absentee ballot application to every registered voter who hadn’t cast an early vote, and allowing ballots to be postmarked until June 2. The legislature rejected the plan, setting the deadline for April 28 and opting instead to send registered voters postcards instructing them how to request an application.

Following the instructions on the postcard was only the first barrier to getting the ballot in hand; the sheer volume of applications and ballots counties had to process, on top of delays on the part of the United States Postal Service, meant that some voters never received their ballots. 

Taylor Lonas, a resident of Lucas County, said she requested her absentee ballot in mid-February — before the statewide switch to absentee was even made — but never received her ballot. 

Lonas called her election officials four times over the course of two months to try and get her absentee ballot, first learning that her application was never received, and ultimately finding out election staffers had misspelled her street name. 

“I put in a lot of effort to try to get the information for the ballot so I could send it in but unfortunately, it just didn't work out for me,” she said. 

In other cases, the USPS took too long to deliver applications or ballots. In Butler County, 318 ballots were rejected because they arrived after the May 8 deadline. The ballots were postmarked on or before April 27, but they took 14 days to arrive at the elections office. LaRose had tried to prevent such issues by asking for Congressional support for USPS offices to hire additional staff and conduct searches for unprocessed mail. USPS declined to answer whether they received the funding, but ultimately implemented additional measures to expedite election mail delivery.

The cost of mail-in

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that it will cost Ohio between $70 and $82 million to administer the November election in what it considers a safe manner. The majority of that cost will fall on county election boards, with the greatest expense coming from mail-in ballot distribution at $20.1 to $27.5 million.

For Clermont County, with a population of just over 200,000, Carney estimates that their extra postage costs worked out to $20,000. They also incurred extra costs associated with a mail-in election: paper, toner, copies, a mail ballot verifier machine, along with money spent printing in-person ballots that never got used. 

The primary cleared Butler County’s office of all its absentee ballot envelopes, which they had anticipated would last them through November. Counties may have to purchase more supplies like scanners for the general election, where turnout is expected to be higher. 

Staffing costs were another major expense. To deal with the influx of ballot applications and troubleshooting phone calls, Lucas County had to quickly ramp up the number of staffers, by hiring 30 additional seasonal employees and staying open on weekends, County Board of Elections Deputy Director Tim Monaco said. 

“This was a quick time frame. It’s not something we’re built for,” Monaco said. “It’s just a short amount of time to have to turn out so many ballots.”

Looking to November

On June 15, the Ohio Controlling Board authorized the use of federal funds to allow LaRose’s office to send absentee ballot request forms to all 7.8 million registered voters for the November election. The undertaking is estimated to cost $1.5 million. 

Providing more time for county boards of elections to prepare for the election is crucial, multiple boards of election officials said.

“We did have some infrastructure to support this shift to mail, but we’ve just never done it at this scale, and we didn’t really have time to gear up for it, or order supplies in a timely manner,” said Eric Corbin, deputy director of Butler County’s Board of Elections. 

The virus is also changing the way many of the candidates are campaigning. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has taken to hosting virtual rallies amid social distancing guidelines. According to a report by Cross Screen Media, political ad spending is also expected to spike, due to campaigns devoting more of their budget to online, rather than in person, spending.

Beyond Ohio

Many factors, like easing social distancing laws, and progress on testing and vaccine availability, could mean that this upcoming fall could be very similar to the state of COVID-19 this spring, said Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist.  

“This is a management problem,” Persily said, “This is an extremely chaotic, difficult environment in which even well-meaning people are going to make mistakes.” Persily is referring to the high-level coordination that will be required for counties, states, and the federal government to adapt to the situation. 

Scaling up will take time, and states are running out of it. A working group led by the Department of Homeland Security said that states should have begun preparing for mail-in elections in April in order to be ready by November, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

“States and the federal government haven't invested in the vote-by-mail system,” Brickner said. “The chaos of the pandemic, and the lack of funding and investment in the infrastructure of our election system can then lead to many voters just not being able to use the system, getting confused and frustrated and just not exercising their right to vote, and I think that that is the far more clear danger that can happen in November.”

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