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

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.

Inconsistent Ballot Application Data Leads to Undercount of Disenfranchised Voters

Haley Belisle, a recent graduate of Ohio Northern University, was baffled this spring when the Hardin County Board of elections rejected her application to vote absentee in the state’s presidential primary. 

The problem was her signature on the application: It didn’t match her voter registration signature. “When I originally registered, I was just out of high school and I apparently signed my name in a very curly cursive, which I don’t do any more,” she said. The 24-year-old got a new application and replicated the original style, she said, effectively “forging my own signature.” 

Belisle was able to cast her ballot. 

That wasn’t the case for all potential voters in Ohio’s presidential primary. 

This summer, Eye on Ohio set out to examine how many absentee ballot applications were rejected, why, and how voters could avoid those mistakes. The analysis of millions of Ohio applications from the state’s 88 counties revealed a patchwork and unreliable system for tracking the requests that makes it near-impossible to accurately know how many voters, if any, were disenfranchised. It also called into question the accuracy of information collected by state election officials on rejected applications. 

With only weeks until the 2020 presidential election, and lingering concerns about the novel coronavirus, voters are applying for absentee ballots at a record pace. 

That, along with President Donald Trump’s attacks on the use of mail-in ballots,  though not supported by research, could bring magnified attention to the process, especially in a swing state like Ohio where Trump and Sen. Joe Biden are swapping narrow leads in the polls. 

Applications for mail-in ballots received relatively little attention in the past, as most fair election advocates concentrated efforts on whether absentee and provisional ballots were counted.