Ohio completed its primary election on April 28 in a way that no one ever envisioned, but in a way that was necessitated by the global pandemic. While it’s obvious that no one wanted to change the way we run elections in Ohio the day before voting was set to occur, the fact that we responded to the pandemic and did so successfully should, in many ways, be a point of pride for our state. The tireless and dedicated bipartisan teams of election officials in each of our 88 counties made Ohio the first state to respond to this pandemic by conducting our election almost entirely by mail. And in spite of these challenges, Ohio voters made their voices heard at a rate comparable to the more competitive 2012 presidential primary. This is proof positive that Ohioans take their rights and responsibilities as citizens seriously and will overcome adversity to vote. Ohio voters overcame challenges to cast their ballots, but they shouldn’t have to – it should never be that difficult again.
This primary election came with more than a few bumps along the way. Each lesson learned from this experience can be overcome in the future with a few small improvements, and a lot of education. While the legislature ultimately enacted a plan that was different from the one I developed with the state’s bipartisan election officials, lawmakers should now draw on the expertise of the people on the frontlines of election administration to prepare for a smoother general election on November 3rd.
Make no mistake, the November election cannot and will not be delayed or postponed, so we must take steps now to ensure that Election Day voting, early in-person voting and voting by mail are all available in a way that is safe and secure.
While more Ohioans, Republicans and Democrats alike, have chosen to take advantage of vote-by-mail options over the years, most are still more comfortable with and committed to voting in person. For years Ohioans have been able to choose between early voting in person, early voting by mail or voting in person on election day. Ohioans like that they have choices and we must prepare now so that they are all available in November. Your vote is too important — we must be prepared.
For nearly two decades, Ohio has offered voting by mail as a secure and convenient option. Unlike some states, Ohio does it right by prohibiting ballot harvesting and putting in place common sense safeguards like maintaining accurate voter rolls and requiring voters to verify their identity when requesting and casting a ballot.
To ensure the integrity of November’s election, there are four priorities that the legislature must immediately address: 1) Allow online requests for a vote-by-mail ballot; 2) Absentee ballot requests with postage-paid envelopes, and postage-paid envelopes for ballots 3) A realistic timeline for ballots to be delivered to Ohioans; 4) Enhanced election infrastructure and accommodations for in-person voting.
First, since my time in the Ohio Senate, I’ve been an advocate for getting rid of Ohio’s antiquated dead-tree format for requesting vote-by-mail ballots and utilizing the technology available to allow voters to request their ballot securely online. State Senator Teresa Gavarone has similar legislation to what I proposed many years ago in the General Assembly and I hope her fellow legislators will swiftly act on it once they are able to convene.
Next, the legislature unnecessarily added an extra step to the vote-by-mail process by requiring the mailing of an informational postcard to every registered Ohioan instead of an absentee ballot request form with a postage-paid envelope as we recommended. Going forward, registered voters should be directly sent a ballot request form and a postage-paid envelope to return it. When it’s time to return your voted ballot, that should be in a postage-paid envelope as well.
Third, a surge of election-related mail overwhelmed our United States Postal Service in the final days of the election. This led to delays and some individuals not receiving their ballots in time to vote. This happened because the deadline for requesting ballots is only three days before Election Day. That’s too late and logistically impossible for all the steps necessary to happen and still allow voters to receive their ballots in time to get it sent back in. I have recommended that the deadline be set one week before Election Day. This change must happen if we want to give voters a fair shot at casting their ballots, abide by the logistical realities of the mail system, and not create unrealistic time expectations that encourage procrastination.
Finally, I am committed to providing in person voting this fall, but to do so will require a consolidation of polling locations and a significant poll worker recruitment effort, while also following the necessary health and safety accommodations. My office has already begun working with county elections officials to get a full after-action report about their needs going forward. Maybe it’s another tabulation machine or another printer; or maybe it’s simply more temporary employees to deal with the volume of mail. Our workers at the front lines must be armed with what they need to succeed.
Now more than ever it’s crucial that we learn from recent experience and make common-sense, informed decisions to assure Ohio is ready for the General Election. After all, voting is not just a right and a privilege, it’s a responsibility of citizenship we all share. My mission as your Chief Elections Officer is to provide the tools for you to confidently and conveniently perform your duty as a voter because we are stronger when the diverse voices of all of our citizens can be heard. These reforms will help us accomplish that mission, together.
Frank LaRose is secretary of state of Ohio.