Lawmakers won’t allow state to pre-pay postage for ballots

FILE - In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa.  In every U.S. presidential election, thousands of ballots are rejected and never counted. They may have arrived after Election Day or were missing a voter's signature. That number will be far higher this year as the coronavirus pandemic forces tens of millions of Americans to vote by mail for the first time.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
FILE - In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa. In every U.S. presidential election, thousands of ballots are rejected and never counted. They may have arrived after Election Day or were missing a voter's signature. That number will be far higher this year as the coronavirus pandemic forces tens of millions of Americans to vote by mail for the first time. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Credit: Matt Slocum

Credit: Matt Slocum

The Ohio Controlling Board on Monday rejected a request by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to spend up to $3 million from his agency’s budget to pre-pay postage for Ohioans voting by mail.

This means voters opting to cast ballots by mail this year will have to buy their own stamps. Elections officials say they don’t yet know how much postage it will take to mail a ballot first-class, but it will be more than a normal 55 cent stamp.

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The denial came along party lines, with the controlling board’s four Republicans voting against the request and two Democrats voting for it after LaRose, a Republican, pleaded for the measure, calling it a “missed opportunity, by the legislature to make a small change, without an impact on our state budget, that would yield a big improvement.”

Those opposed questioned whether LaRose has authority to make such an expenditure — LaRose argued he did — and noted that the Ohio House in June passed a bill currently before the Senate that would prohibit the secretary of state from prepaying postage on ballots or absentee ballot requests.

“You don’t have express authority given to you by the legislature to pay for postage,” said state Sen. Bill Coley, R-Butler County.

State Rep. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton, said he is reluctant to change any rules “in the 11th hour.”

“I believe the people of the state of Ohio have plenty of opportunities to vote in the upcoming election,” he said.

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LaRose said he agrees with legislation prohibiting his office from prepaying postage in normal times, but that the General Assembly should allow it during the coronaviruis pandemic as they did in this year’s primary — when many voters had to vote via absentee ballot after the polls were closed on Election Day.

In the upcoming general election, voters have the option of voting in-person at their polling place, voting in-person early at their board of elections, or voting by absentee ballot and either mailing it in or dropping it in a drop box at their board of elections.

"For many Ohioans they believe the safest option for them to make their voice heard in a free and fair election is absentee,” LaRose said. “For those Ohioans, I want to make it as convenient as possible for them to vote their ballot and mail it back in.”

He noted many people don’t have stamps at home these days because they pay bills online.

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State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, sided with LaRose. “This is an unusual time that requires some unusual provisions for us, the leaders and servants of the people," he said.

State Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, said the controlling board — a committee consisting of members of both legislative chambers and both parties that approves adjustments to the state budget — has the authority to sign-off on the expenditure.

LaRose said prepaying postage has bipartisan support from elections officials across the state and should not be viewed through a partisan lens: “Once a ballot is filled out and sitting on a table, having the postage paid is not going to benefit people from one party or another to send it back sooner.”

But the issue has become politically charged, with President Donald Trump suggesting that increased voting by mail will lead to increased election fraud. Ohio election officials stress they have offered absentee voting for decades without a problem.

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A recent Dayton Daily News survey captured the partisan unease. The majority of respondents who said they are voting for Trump said they are “very concerned ... about voter fraud caused by increased voting by mail this year.” Most supporters of former vice president Joe Biden said they are “not concerned.”

Most concern is centered around universal mail-in voting, which Ohio does not offer. LaRose sent an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter in the state, but only those who fill it out with the required information and request a ballot will get one.

LaRose said more than 1 million Ohioans have already requested absentee ballots, which will start going out in the mail on Oct. 6. In Montgomery County, the 61,099 requests for absentee ballots sent so far this year eclipses the total of 52,220 requests from the 2016 presidential election.

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That year, more Republicans voted by absentee ballot than Democrats in Montgomery County.

A recent Dayton Daily News investigation found mail delivery in the Miami Valley can be inconsistent and that ballots weren’t counted in this year’s primary because of problems with the U.S. Postal Service.

LaRose and other elections officials recommend voters casting ballots by mail request and send in ballots as soon as possible to make sure they get through the mail.

“Make a plan. Don’t procrastinate. Make sure your voice is heard,” LaRose said.