Elections officials say vote-by-mail changes everything

Ohio’s in-person primary election voting may have been canceled due to the coronavirus crisis, but with less than two weeks left to cast ballots by mail, voters across the Dayton region are inundating election boards with requests for ballots.

“The amount of people voting is phenomenal,” said Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. “We’re working sometimes seven days a week, 10 hours a day.”

As of Tuesday the Montgomery County board had processed 57,000 applications for absentee ballots and mailed out 45,849 ballots, Kelly said.

Across the region election officials said they believe the vote-by-mail process is challenging but voters will become more comfortable with it. They expect voters will use absentee ballots in far greater numbers in the future, even if people are once again allowed to go to the polls in November for the General Election.

“This is going to forever change our absentee voting,” said Brian Sleeth, director of the Warren County Board of Elections. “I think this is going to make a lot of people who have never voted by mail realize how easy it is to do.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton canceled in-person voting on the eve of the March 17 primary election, due to concerns about health and safety as the coronavirus outbreak spread. The state legislature then changed the election to be all by mail using absentee ballots and rescheduled it to April 28.

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Kelly said voter turnout had been relatively low through mid-March but voters are definitely responding to the publicity about voting-by-mail, which includes postcards sent by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to all registered voters telling them how to request absentee ballots.

Susan Hesselgesser, executive director of the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area, said the group is doing everything it can to get ballot applications to people, including dropping them off at their homes. She said if the coronavirus causes officials to close the polls for the November election, the league will begin a massive effort to train people on how to vote absentee.

“I believe it is a safe, accurate way to vote,” Hesselgesser said. “I believe we are going to have to rethink how we do things.”

LaRose’s office said 1.25 million absentee ballots had been requested statewide and 712,048 ballots were cast as of April 10.

“It is absolutely crucial that Ohioans get their vote-by-mail requests in right away so there is enough time for county boards of elections to process applications and the postal service to deliver the ballots,” LaRose said.

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Five states conduct their elections entirely by mail and this is Ohio’s first effort. Local boards say they are going full bore to handle it.

“We are experiencing a deluge of phone calls and mail, so we are doing our best to stay on top of it,” said Amber Lopez, deputy director of the Clark County Board of Elections. “Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

“For a lot of people who are doing this, it’s their first time voting by mail, so they need an explanation of the process,” said Lopez, adding that about 14,700 people have applied for ballots in Clark County.

Warren County has received 9,000 pieces of mail just on Monday, Sleeth said, and has sent out a total of 35,598 ballots.

“We are going through massive amounts of envelopes,” he said.

Two boards reported problems with their mailings. A small number of people in Montgomery County, perhaps 30 to 50, received ballots with two internal envelopes but no external, postage-paid envelope. The board mailed out replacement envelopes, Kelly said, and reminded voters they can also drop off ballots in a secure box in front of the county building.

Llyn McCoy, director of the Greene County Board of Elections, said an as-yet-undetermined number of voters received ballots with a note saying they must be postmarked April 22, which is incorrect. She said they are being contacted and told the returned ballots must be postmarked by April 27 to be counted.

Voters may also drop off the ballots to board offices in person by 7:30 p.m. April 28, and all ballots must be received by the boards by May 8 to be counted.

Greene County has processed 32,402 absentee applications and mailed 16,583 ballots before running out of envelopes, McCoy said. On Thursday she said a new supply of envelopes had arrived and “ballots for applications received through yesterday will be in the mail by tomorrow.”

Eric Corbin, deputy director of the Butler County Board of Elections, said the board initially had enough absentee voting supplies on hand to get through a normal primary election but not enough for an all-absentee ballot election.

“Supplies were the main issue and we were able to procure everything we needed,” Corbin said.

In Butler County 36,721 people requested absentee ballots and 20,447 have voted as of Wednesday.

All of the Dayton region local boards have added temporary staff, although Lopez said Clark County has brought in fewer than it needs to keep social distancing in place.

“We brought in quite a few of our poll workers as seasonal staff so we’ve got teams of folks who are handling (tasks),” said Ian Ridgeway, deputy director of the Miami County Board of Elections, which has received 13,981 ballot applications and mailed about 13,000 ballots.

He and other local board officials said the biggest problems with ballot applications for the primary election is people do not mark which ballot they want — Democrat, Republican or issues only.

RELATED: More than 1,500 local absentee ballot requests incomplete

For this election only boards are allowed to call people to resolve questions on their applications, rather than handling that by mail, to speed up the process of resolving questions, Ridgeway said. People who did not provide a phone number on the application will get a letter notifying them of a problem so they can resubmit their application.

The state allocated $7 million to LaRose’s office to reimburse county boards for costs, including prepaid postage, printing, secure ballot boxes, equipment, temporary staff, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment such as masks.

Local board officials said they have been able to keep up with the influx of ballots by using high-speed scanners to scan the ballots. State law allows ballots to be scanned but they cannot be tabulated until 7:30 p.m. April 28. That means election results are likely going to be available much earlier in the evening on April 28 than in a normal election when results are collected from polling places across each county, said Aaron Ockerman, director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

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The legislature made a one-time exception allowing provisional ballots to be cast by mail for people who have moved and not updated their address or who have other special circumstances, he said.

“We asked the legislature in the name of public health to not make us interact with all those people,” Ockerman said.

Some board offices are closed, while others are open. But all of them have set up secure boxes for people to deposit ballots in person. Only people with disabilities can vote in-person at board offices on Election Day.

Protecting board staff as they interact with the public is one of the key concerns across the state, said Ockerman.

“(Personal protective equipment) is certainly hard to come by for people on the front lines,” Ockerman said, adding that there are also concerns about possible coronavirus contamination of the thousands of pieces of mail elections staff are handling.

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Members of the public are still coming into Montgomery County offices. On Tuesday Kelly said she had been unable to obtain face masks for her staff, although some had made their own. She said she had called Public Health-Dayton and Montgomery County, but was told they had none available.

After being contacted by a Dayton Daily News reporter about the lack of masks at the elections board office, public health spokesman Dan Suffoletto on Wednesday said the supply of surgical masks that public health has are for first responders and medical staff only. But he said he would offer Kelly some hand-made face masks for her staff. They arrived at board offices Wednesday afternoon.

Kelly thanked the Dayton Daily News for its assistance in securing the equipment, which included a box of gloves.

Other area boards said they do have some protective equipment for staff but many are relying on hand-made materials.

Clark County received donated hand-made face masks and has gloves and sanitizing supplies at work stations. For election day the board has fashioned its own sneeze guards for workers in the voting room, Lopez said.

Voters in Warren County are asked to sanitize their hands before they come in to the office and when they leave, Sleeth said, and his staff are constantly sanitizing and maintaining the 6-foot rule.

“The only PPE we have for staff are masks, which volunteers have made,” McCoy said. “We do have some hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.”

How to request a ballot

Ohio Secretary of State - VoteOhio.gov

County boards of election - applications online and in boxes outside their offices.

Ohio absentee voting - As of April 10, 2020

Ballots requested 1,254,377

*By party: Democrat-55%, Republican-39%

Ballots cast 712,048

*By party: Democrat-60%, Republican-36%

*Balance Libertarian or non-partisan ballots

Source: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose

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