9K local voters didn’t get requested ballots, changes called for in November

Voters came out to turn in their ballots at the Butler County Board of Elections on Princeton Road in Hamilton on election day Tuesday, April 28 after it had been postponed due to coronavirus pandemic. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Nearly 9,000 voters who requested absentee ballots to vote in last week’s primary election in six local counties didn’t get a ballot because their request was either mailed too late or improperly filled out, a Dayton Daily News analysis found.

This illustrates obstacles for state and local elections officials gearing up for a much-larger presidential election in November where an unprecedented number of people may opt for mail-in voting because of coronavirus concerns.

Absentee ballot request forms mailed before the election continued pouring in to local elections boards for days after the primary election day of April 28, officials said. Interviews with Butler, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren county elections officials estimate the number of requests received after the deadline at more than 4,000 in those counties two days after the election, with more still coming in.

MORE: COMPLETE ELECTION RESULTS

“There are a ton of them,” said Montgomery County Board of Elections Deputy Director Steve Harsman, estimating between 1,500 and 2,000 requests came to his office late. “I’d have liked to have had them on Friday, (April 24), when we could have had them processed. It’s too many.”

A larger number of requests came in on time but were missing needed information, most often a designation of which party ballot the voter wanted. Local counties had staff working full time to contact these voters and most requests were corrected, but roughly 4,500 requests in the six local counties couldn’t be processed.

“The majority of people who think they requested ballots but didn’t get them probably had something wrong with their ballot and they didn’t get with us,” Greene County Board of Elections Director Llyn McCoy said.

But even voters who met the deadline and provided proper information didn’t necessarily get their ballots on time because of the realities of snail mail.

PHOTOS: Voters cast ballots for 2020 election

The deadline to request a ballot was noon Saturday, April 25. There were 4,166 ballots mailed to voters that day in the six counties. Completed ballots had to be mailed back to the boards of elections postmarked by April 27 or dropped off Election Day, April 28.

U.S. Postal Service officials say delivery of first class mail takes two to five days.

“There were people who requested their ballots at the latest possible time and didn’t get their ballots,” Butler County Board of Elections Deputy Director Eric Corbin said.

Delivery times ‘a wild range’

Postal service officials say they made a concerted push in the final days before the election to get ballots to voters.

“Despite the extraordinarily tight statutory time lines for Ohio’s all mail election on Tuesday, the Postal Service made extraordinary efforts to process and deliver ballots by coordinating very closely with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office,” post office spokeswoman Naddia Dhalai said.

Local elections officials say the post office was turning around deliveries quickly and some of the ballots sent out Saturday were cast. Some were dropped off by voters on Election Day.

RELATED: Ohio’s primary election draws turnout below 23 percent

“I know the ballots were getting to the voters and getting back to us timely,” Clark County Board of Elections Director Jason Baker said.

But delivery times for ballot requests were “a wild range,” Miami County Board of Elections Deputy Director Ian Ridgeway said.

“We got one that was postmarked (April) 4 and we got it yesterday,” he said Wednesday. “There were some it was taking a week, two weeks, and there were some we got yesterday that was postmarked the 27th.”

Problems getting ballots

Chuck Greene was one of multiple people who said they mailed in a ballot request but the board of elections never got it. When Greene contacted the Greene County Board of Elections and learned the request never showed up, he hand-delivered another request. The ballot showed up five days later on the Saturday before the election.

“It was such a good feeling to get that ballot on Saturday,” he said. He and his wife filled them out that day and dropped them off at the board of elections.

But Kathi Flanders, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican challenger for U.S. Rep. Mike Turner’s seat in Congress, said tons of people told her they never received their requested ballots.

Election highlights: Everything you need to know about Tuesday’s election

“It heavily impacted the election,” she said. “They just totally messed it all up this year.”

Voters who requested a ballot but didn’t get one in time were permitted to cast a provisional ballots in person at the board of elections on Election Day. More than 2,000 people cast provisional ballots on Election day in these six counties.

But this number includes people who didn’t properly request a ballot to vote by the deadline. The state said on Friday those ballots won’t be counted.

State official: Changes needed

Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Ohio’s top election official, said he wasn’t surprised by the newspaper’s findings. He had wanted to push back the primary to late May or early June to give more time for voters to get their ballots, but the General Assembly approved an April primary.

“My hope is that in the future, the members of the General Assembly will listen to the concerns that our elections officials have and the Secretary of State’s office has,” LaRose said. “A lot of these issues, we had been very clear about several weeks ago that there were unrealistic expectations as far as logistics.”

RELATED: Elections officials say vote-by-mail changes everything

One change LaRose and local elections officials say should be made is moving back the deadline to request an absentee ballot. Telling people they can put in a request on Saturday and expect a ballot in time for an election Tuesday is unrealistic, they said.

“You hate to tell people we’re working on your ballot because you’re thinking in the back of your head, ‘Gosh, you’re not going to get it,’” McCoy said.

LaRose wants to move the deadline back to a week before the election.

Making requesting ballots easier

Another hurdle elections officials say was unnecessary was getting people the forms to request an absentee ballot. Many people called their board of elections to have a request form mailed to them, adding up to another five days to the process.

“How illogical is it in the year 2020 that we’re expecting people to print out a dead tree piece of paper, put a wet ink signature on it, find a stamp in their junk drawer or somewhere, mail it in to their county board of elections, just to start another mailing that they’re going to then have to mail back to the board of elections,” LaRose said.

“We should be able to do that request online,” he said. “It’s actually more secure than paper when you have the right safeguards in place.”

Furthermore, LaRose supports automatically sending every registered voter in the state an absentee ballot request form with a postage-paid response envelope.

Preparing for November

LaRose said he hopes the state can offer in-person voting in November, but he expects people will opt for mail-in voting at a much higher rate than ever before.

A study released last week from the Brennan Center for Justice estimates this year’s election will cost $70 million to $82.2 million extra to pull off safely in Ohio and the state needs more federal help. That cost includes things like personal protective equipment for poll workers to plastic sneeze guards to increased postage costs to cleaning supplies.

RELATED: Five states vote only by mail. Should Ohio do the same to avoid coronavirus?

LaRose said mitigating the coronavirus will increase the cost of the election, though he wouldn’t estimate how much at this point.

“We’re all assuming we’re all going to be voting absentee,” said Susan Hesselgesser, executive director of the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area.

She would advocate mailing actual ballots to registered voters, as several states that hold mail-only elections routinely do. But short of that, she supports sending all voters ballot request forms without them having to request it first.

She said the changed election dates, novelty for many people of voting by mail and tight turnaround time left a lot of people confused and unable to get a ballot in the primary.

“It was a huge learning curve and didn’t give people enough of a chance to get it done,” she said, advocating for increased voter outreach for whatever process is decided on in November.

Elections officials ‘worked hard’

LaRose said the state needs to have a plan in place by mid- to late summer to give people enough time to be prepared.

Mail-in voting is secure the way Ohio does it, he said, and can be scaled up safely. He said turnout in this year’s primary election was similar to the 2012 primary.

“Even with all these other logistical hurdles that were out there, that’s a testament to the voters’ eagerness to get involved and have their voice heard and even overcome challenges to do that, and to the election officials that worked hard to make it happen,” he said.

Warren County Board of Elections Director Brian Sleeth wasn’t feeling the love from voters, however, the day after the election as ballot request forms continued coming in.

“That’s all I’ve done today is get yelled at by voters who said we rushed this election,” he said.

Doing our part

To assist voters in Ohio’s first-ever, mail-in only election, the Dayton Daily News, Springfield News-Sun and Journal-News printed absentee ballot request forms in the newspapers. Local elections officials say well over 1,000 voters used these forms to obtain their ballots to vote in this year’s election. Your subscription makes this type of community effort possible.

In Other News