Voting 201: Options in Ohio, plus myths debunked

Voting is a simple concept. Fill out a ballot, drop it in a box, and off you go. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and raging political wars, voting in all states — including Ohio — seems more complicated.

Take the issue of drop boxes, for example.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 primary was almost entirely an absentee ballot election. County boards of elections, at the direction of the Ohio General Assembly, installed drop boxes outside their offices to receive absentee ballots from voters and relieve overburdened mail carriers.

As the Nov. 3 general election approaches, the drop boxes remain in place — one in each county — because although Ohioans can vote in-person on Election Day, more are expected to vote absentee than ever before. Voting rights groups have called for additional drop boxes to handle the increased absentee load.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, while saying he favors the idea, has so far refused to authorize additional drop boxes. He’s questioned whether it’s legal and is worried the state would face lawsuits unless Ohio lawmakers pass legislation approving extra drop boxes.

Nevertheless, on Sept. 14, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections voted to place additional drop boxes at six libraries. Then, just one day later, an Ohio judge ruled that LaRose has no legal right to prohibit more drop boxes. LaRose said he will appeal the ruling and continue to forbid extra drop boxes.

Meanwhile, in August, League of Women Voters of Ohio and other groups filed a lawsuit against LaRose in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The suit challenges the limit of one drop box per county, saying its unconstitutional and diminishes voter access.

“Given how many people need to vote absentee because of the coronavirus and possible slow mail times, drop boxes are a no-brainer in Ohio,” says Jen Miller, executive director of League of Women Voters of Ohio.

On Sept. 10, the campaign for President Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee, and the Ohio Republican Party filed papers to intervene in and oppose the League of Women Voters lawsuit. Their argument, in part, is that it’s too close to the election to increase the number of drop boxes.

Despite the craziness, Ohioans can still depend on time-proven steps to registering for the November election and submitting absentee ballots. However, waiting until the last minute isn’t advisable due to the large number of absentee ballots expected.

Mike West, spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, says that as of Sept. 10, the board had received more than 202,000 absentee ballot applications — and they were still coming in. Comparatively, in the 2016 presidential election, a total of about 192,000 county residents voted absentee.

Sherry Poland, director of elections in Hamilton County, says her county’s board of elections, as of Sept. 10, had received more than 88,000 absentee applications. The number was only about 18,700 in November 2016.

To handle the influx of absentee ballots, Hamilton County has hired additional staff and brought in more machines that open absentee ballot envelopes and scan ballots.

“When you’re dealing with thousands of applications, whatever you can do to speed up the process helps,” Poland says.


First things first

Here’s what we know for sure: In Ohio, those registering to vote must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 on Election Day, and an Ohio resident for at least 30 days. Registration applications must be submitted at least 30 days before the election. For the Nov. 3 election, the deadline is Oct. 5.

Ohioans can register online, by mail, or in person. Register online on the Ohio secretary of state’s or county elections boards’ websites. Applicants must provide their driver’s license or Ohio identification card number, date of birth, address, and last four digits of their Social Security number.

For those preferring the mail, printable registration forms are available on the secretary of state’s and election boards’ websites. Prospective voters can also call their boards of elections and ask them to mail a registration card. The application must be postmarked no later than 30 days before the election — again, Oct. 5 this year.

Citizens can pick up registration forms, or register in-person, at the secretary of state’s office, boards of elections, libraries, high and vocational schools, offices of the county registrar or deputy registrar of motor vehicles, and country treasurers’ offices. For a complete list of registration locations, see the secretary of state’s or the local elections board websites.

Registered voters who have moved or changed their names must re-register. For those who haven’t voted for at least six years, chances are the state purged their names from the voter roll due to their inactivity, so they too should re-register.

Once the elections board receives the application, it must complete the registration process within 20 days and notify the applicant of their voting location. Call the elections board if it fails to do so.


Voting options

Ohioans have three ways to vote. They can vote in person at their polling locations on Election Day; they can vote early at their county board of elections or early-voting center starting Oct. 6, the day after the registration deadline; or they can vote absentee.

LaRose, during an Aug. 12 press conference, said his office has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ohio Department of Health to make polling locations safer for in-person voters in the COVID-19 era. Poll workers will wear masks and gloves, sanitize voting stations after each use, and keep entry doors open so voters don’t have to touch them.

Stickers on the floor will remind voters to keep a proper distance from each other. Polling places have been redesigned so that voters will move in one direction.

LaRose said in-person voters will be asked, not required, to wear masks.

“Walking into a polling place without wearing a mask is rude, it’s bad manners,” LaRose said. “You should not be doing it. But if you choose to, well, then we’re going to let you cast your ballot and send you on your way.”

Those choosing to vote absentee must apply for a ballot. They can print an absentee application from the secretary of state’s or county elections board websites, or call the elections board and ask for a mailed application. Once the application is filled out, mail it back to the elections board.

To ease the absentee ballot application process, Ohio has mailed applications to all 7.8 million registered voters for about a decade. This year, applications were mailed Labor Day weekend, so most registered voters should have received them by now.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot is noon three days before the election, which this year is Oct. 27. However, LaRose advised voters against waiting that long because they probably wouldn’t receive their ballots until after Election Day, due to the huge wave of absentee applications and possible mail delivery slowdowns.

Completed ballots can be deposited in county drop boxes, which are constantly monitored for security, by Election Day. If the ballots are mailed, they must be postmarked by the day before the election, or Nov. 2. Voters can track their ballots to make sure they’ve been received on their county election board websites. If their ballots don’t appear on the tracker, voters should call their elections board.

West and Poland warn voters to avoid common absentee ballot errors, like forgetting to sign the ballot envelope, signing outside the signature box, writing “USA” where the ballot envelope asks for the voter’s county, and recording the current date instead of their birthdates.


Considering changes

Under federal law, bureaus of motor vehicles are required to ask everyone who conducts business there if they want to register to vote. Nevertheless, in Ohio and other states, the impetus is on prospective voters to decide whether they want to register. It’s an “opt-in” system.

Some want to change that. Within the last two years, Ohio lawmakers, with support from LaRose, have introduced legislation that would automatically register anyone who renews their license, files their taxes, or receives service from any state agency. It would become an opt-out system — citizens would have to make a choice not to register.

One bill, by state Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-14), would go a step further and automatically register high school pupils when they turn 18.

“My goal is to register as many people as possible,” says Sweeney.

Sweeney says the existing opt-in system, in which BMVs give people a choice of whether to register, isn’t capturing enough new voters. Perhaps it’s because BMV workers aren’t always asking people, or because people believe they’re already registered, or because they’re in a hurry and believe it will take too long.

Opt-out registration appears to have worked in other states. In 2019, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York found that every state that switched to automated registration experienced a spike in voter registration.

“We have long supported automated voter registration because it’s a modern, secure, and cost-effective approach to having more accurate voter rolls,” Miller, of League of Women Voters of Ohio, says.

So far, automated voter registration bills have stalled in legislative committees, due at least partly to upheaval in Republican leadership in the House of Representatives after the criminal indictment of former House Speaker Larry Householder. Some bill opponents worry it would lead to voter fraud.


Fraud over fraud

President Trump has claimed that widespread mail-in or absentee voting will lead to fraud. But LaRose, a Republican, isn’t buying that argument. At the Aug. 12 press conference, he said fraud might be a concern in other states but not Ohio.

“In a time in Washington anyway when it seems like Republicans and Democrats can’t agree whether today is Wednesday, at your county board of elections you’ve got Republicans and Democrats that do this very important consequential work together on a daily basis,” LaRose said.

LaRose said state and county elections systems and procedures are secure. Absentee voter identifications are checked twice, when voters apply for a ballot and when they submit one. Ohio prohibits ballot harvesting, which involves one person collecting and submitting ballots on behalf of several voters. Also, the state has hired cybersecurity experts to evaluate computer systems.

LaRose said that any Ohio public official, Republican or Democrat, who spreads conspiracy theories about fraud in the elections system is irresponsible.

“If you are making Ohioans fearful about our elections, you’re kind of doing our foreign adversaries work for them,” LaRose said. “They want to diminish the ability of our elections by causing people to call into question whether elections are really a valid way to run a country. We’re not going to let that happen here.”

Miller agrees, saying, “Ohio has some of the strongest election security protocols in the country. Voter fraud is rare in Ohio, and when it occurs, it is caught, investigated, and prosecuted.”

Poland recalls one case in Hamilton County involving a poll worker who used her position to vote twice in the 2012 election and three times in 2008, 2011, and 2012. She was sentenced to five years in prison, although Poland said she ended up serving less time.

“A felony charge is a good deterrent to voter fraud,” West says.

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Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Read more articles by Bob Sandrick.

Bob Sandrick is an award-winning veteran reporter who has worked as a staff writer for cleveland.com and Sun News. He broke the story about Cleveland Division of Water billing errors in one suburb. It was later discovered the problem was widespread, leading to water division reforms. Today Sandrick is a freelance multimedia journalist.
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