This year presents a unique set of challenges and worries for Ohio voters. Will you be safe if you vote in person? How can you be sure your vote will be counted if you vote by mail?
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose spent much of his time during a conversation last Monday, Oct. 19 with the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative reassuring people that his office, state and local governments, and Ohio’s various county boards of elections have a good handle on the election. Here are the four main takeaways from that conversation.
1. Clean elections here
In the meeting LaRose said the various county boards of elections have been provided with a large amount of cleaning supplies and personal protective gear. He said they’ve each been given a 61-point checklist to follow on safety and cleaning procedures developed by his office that they’re expected to follow.
“The bottom line is this, if you feel comfortable going to the grocery store, you should feel comfortable going to your polling location,” LaRose said.
When it comes to voting by mail (in Ohio, this is called absentee voting), LaRose, a Republican, was emphatic that voting by mail is a completely safe practice, largely free of the potential for fraud. Indeed, a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that the rate of voting fraud overall in the U.S is between .00004% and .0009%.
“There is not widespread voter fraud,” LaRose said.
When asked about frequent, fact-free assertions from President Donald Trump that this election will be rife with voter fraud, LaRose said that it’s “not appropriate, no matter who says it.” However, LaRose also took U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to task, arguing Brown and other Democratic politicians had overblown issues with the U.S. Postal Service earlier this year.
Brown, Democrats and activists had raised the alarm about cuts to postal service operations under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy earlier this year when news circulated about mail sorting equipment being removed from post offices. Many of those changes were suspended after DeJoy faced intense scrutiny and allegations that he and the Trump administration were attempting to “sabotage” the election.
_frank larose press conference from FreshWater Cleveland on Vimeo.
2. Dropping off your ballot?
Meanwhile, LaRose has come under fire in recent weeks after a U.S. District Court judge struck down his order barring county boards of election from setting up off-site ballot drop box locations for absentee ballots, arguing that LaRose had not established a legitimate reason why boards of election couldn’t do so.
Voting rights advocates, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio, argued that multiple ballot box drop-offs would aid people in getting their ballots submitted in populous counties in Ohio like Cuyahoga County. However, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals granted a stay of that judge’s order, meaning LaRose’s order stays in effect through the rest of the election.
LaRose defended the order, arguing that Ohio’s election law, as written, only allows people to drop off their ballots on the site of boards of elections. He said he supports changing the law to allow multiple drop boxes in other locations but argued that it must be done by the Ohio Legislature.
“Those types of decisions are made at the statehouse; you don’t make changes like this at the 11th hour, that kind of thing causes confusion, it causes uncertainty,” LaRose said.
LaRose added that under his leadership, county boards of election now all have at least one ballot drop-off box on site, monitored 24/7 by video surveillance and emptied out daily by a bipartisan group. And he said his order does allow counties to have multiple drop boxes—as long as those drop boxes are on the site of the county board of elections. Drop boxes are located at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, 2925 Euclid Avenue.
3. Record numbers in an unusual year
So far, Ohio has seen record levels of early voting and absentee ballot applications this election season, likely due to the pandemic. LaRose’s office shared data showing that so far as of last week, about 1.115 million people have voted early, compared to about 510,000 as of the same time in 2016. The state has received 2.745 million absentee ballot applications, compared to 1.4 million as of the same time in 2016.
LaRose said Ohio has over 8 million people registered to vote this year (that’s around 200,000 people more than in 2016). He credited part of that success to several campaigns his office started, including a “Raise a Glass to Democracy” partnership with over 50 Ohio craft breweries where cans and bottles featured information on how to vote.
LaRose said his office also partnered with over 100 barbershops and beauty salons to register Ohio voters at those locations.
Meanwhile, Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted said Ohio is well-staffed with enough poll workers this year. The bare minimum is around 37,000, typically. So far, around 100,000 people have signed up to work the polls; about 53,000 have been trained and placed of that 100,000.
With so many absentee ballots cast this year, one open question is about how many absentee ballot applications will be rejected this year. Nonprofit news outlet Eye on Ohio found earlier this year that the state rejected as invalid more than 72,000 applications for the 2020 primary.
Why were those applications rejected? The reasons differ based on the various county boards of election, Eye on Ohio’s analysis found.
As far as how many ballot requests have been rejected so far this election, LaRose didn’t say. He said his office is “working to pull that data” on how many applications have been rejected, and why they were rejected, from the boards of election, but suggested it’s a problem that will require help from Ohio’s legislature.
“Because of that bottom-up system we have in Ohio, that can be a challenge, even getting data in a standard way,” LaRose said.
LaRose did say the county boards of elections have been instructed to call anyone who has a problem on their absentee ballot application, to help that voter fix those issues.
Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at [email protected], or find him on Twitter. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.