Election may still draw thousands in person: ‘We don’t know what to expect’

MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF FILE PHOTO

Today’s primary election — postponed and shifted to mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic — may still draw thousands of in-person voters, threatening the health of voters and elections workers.

The unprecedented extension of the March primary — compounded by mail delays — has left voters confused and many potentially without ballots in hand to complete before yesterday’s postmark deadline.

The result could be what officials hoped to avoid — long lines at county boards of elections, said Brian Sleeth, Warren County’s elections director.

“I have to plan for one,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. It’s hard to tell. We have no data to compare how many people to expect tomorrow.”

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At least 36 people in Wisconsin tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting they voted in or worked the polls during that state’s controversial in-person election on April 7, according to news reports.

Laura Bruns, the elections director in Miami County, said it’s difficult to gauge how many will show up, but her office is preparing for many hundreds.

“We don’t know what to expect with no precedent,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get 20 or 2,000.”

The chaotic March 17 primary was halted the day before when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine asked for a delay, which quickly wound up in court after the state’s health director ordered polling locations closed.

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Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose initially issued a directive that the election be postponed until June 2, but the state legislature set the date today in a broad coronavirus response bill.

“This was an issue Secretary LaRose and county elections officials foresaw and part of why both he and they provided a different path to the General Assembly. The legislature did not take their recommendations,” said Maggie Sheehan, a LaRose spokesperson, in a statement Monday.

The legislature’s coronavirus package shifted Ohio’s election to a vote-by-mail primary and required ballot requests to be received by county boards by Saturday at noon and ballots postmarked yesterday. To be eligible, voters must still have been registered as of Feb. 18.

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A state directive allowed for the disabled and homeless to vote in person today. But longstanding election law maintains county election boards must also issue a provisional ballot to any voter who would otherwise be required to vote provisionally, including those who requested an absentee ballot for the election.

“We will provide provisional ballots to any voter who comes in but are not in one of those two classes,” Bruns said.

To keep the number of in-person voters to a minimum, those with mail-in ballots should complete them and place in secure boxes today by 7:30 p.m. at their elections board, Sheehan said.

“They should not consider this a backstop if they have received their ballot,” she said. “In-person voting … is intended only for disabled and voters without a home address.”

Election boards must be open from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., according to the House bill and subsequent directive.

Calls were not returned Monday by elections officials in Greene and Montgomery counties.

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Charles Greene from Beavercreek said he and his wife Carla first requested mail-in ballots in late March. After a second request from the Greene County Board of Elections, their ballots finally arrived Saturday, he said.

Greene said the “changes to the changes” of the election kept many voters – even those who tried to stay informed – off balance.

“I don’t know how that was disseminated, but the early stages of that were not done right,” he said.

Ballot applications were due to Ohio’s elections boards by noon Saturday.

Miami County received as many as 300 ballot applications back on Monday, Bruns said.

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Sleeth said 800 ballot applications came back to Warren County on Monday. Another 9,900 ballots have been sent out but not returned, he said.

Many people might have properly requested a ballot, Sleeth said.

“So those people would qualify to vote provisional and have their ballot counted,” he said. “If anybody comes here, we’re not supposed to turn them away.”

County prosecutors are the legal counsel for boards of elections and have the discretion to determine how provisional votes are counted, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office.

“But it is expected that boards would all follow state law that states requests must be received by the noon Saturday deadline for an absentee ballot to count,” according to statement by Sheehan.

Bruns said the Miami County Public Health is limiting to 10 the number of voters inside the Board of Elections today. Marks are being placed on the floor to keep people distanced and regular voters will be separated from those casting provisional ballots, Bruns said.

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Voters at the Warren County Board of Elections will find similar measures to protect workers and voters, Sleeth said.

Marks six-feet apart will be placed along the sidewalk to the building and down a long hallway to maintain social distancing. Only 10 people will be allowed in the office at a time. The usual eight processing stations will be cut to five in order to spread people. Two sheriff’s deputies will be on hand to handle parking or traffic issues.

The highest in-person voting day at the Warren County Board of Elections came during the 2016 Presidential Election when 1,900 people cast ballots on a day early voting was offered, Sleeth said.

He hopes numbers don’t top “three digits” today.

“But I have to prepare for thousands of people to show up,” he said. “That might be a little unrealistic, but I can’t be caught any other way.”

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Josh Swartzbaugh, a voter from Englewood, said he’s worried some people will have ballots returned due to lack of postage.

Swartzbaugh went to mail his ballot Monday at the Trotwood post office and a worker there discovered the envelope provided by the Montgomery County Board of Elections wasn’t postage-paid, which is normal.

Swartzbaugh said he paid the 55 cents postage, but others may not have noticed before dropping ballots in the mail: “How many other people did this happen to and do they know their vote might not be counted?”

Montgomery County earlier this month was aware of a certain problem that affected 30 to 50 voters who received ballots with two internal envelopes and said replacement postage-paid envelopes were mailed to those voters.

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