Coronavirus: Ohio elections officials prep for lines Tuesday despite mostly mail-in voting - News - The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio’s local boards of elections are preparing for lines of voters who didn’t receive their absentee ballots in the mail in time to vote ...

Ohio’s local boards of elections are preparing for lines of voters who didn’t receive their absentee ballots in the mail in time to vote in the primary election even though a plan from state lawmakers sharply limited in-person voting.

Elections officials are hoping to avoid problems with in-person voting that plagued Wisconsin, where several cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the election, and some are considering taking the temperature of voters and setting up voting outdoors to prevent the spread of the virus.

The need to prepare for lines of voters is a departure from what is supposed to be an almost entirely by-mail election after the polls were closed on March 17 to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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The Ohio General Assembly’s plan mandated that only two categories of voters — the disabled and the homeless — would be allowed to vote in-person Tuesday. But a directive to boards of elections from Secretary of State Frank LaRose points out that voters who did not receive their absentee ballots in the mail are allowed to vote provisional ballots.

Voters who do not fall into one of those two categories will be required to sign an affirmation form that they wish to cast a provisional ballot.

>> Here’s how you can vote in Ohio’s ’new’ primary election

Slow mail delivery has left some voters without their ballots just days before they must postmark them to be counted in the extended primary, which is scheduled to end Tuesday. LaRose’s directive said those voters would be allowed to cast provisional ballots Tuesday at their county’s board of elections, the only in-person voting locations that will be open.

But LaRose’s spokesman said Friday that voters “should not consider this a backstop if they have received their ballot.”

Voters who receive their absentee ballot in the mail should postmark it by Monday or drop it off at their county board of elections in a dropbox by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, said Jon Keeling, LaRose’s spokesman.

“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,” Keeling said of in-person provisional voting.

Local boards of elections are working with health officials and county prosecutors “to create as safe an environment as possible for voters and election officials,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

Boards are considering or already have plans to distance voters, take their temperatures, create outdoor voting environments and use personal protective equipment to limit the spread of the virus, he said.

Voters with higher temperatures could be moved to another line and vote in a different area, Ockerman said.

“We’re preparing people for the fact that we’re going to have lines,” said Ed Leonard, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. “I think every board of elections in the state is going to have a line of people waiting to cast their ballot.”

But Gov. Mike DeWine said Friday that he does not expect to see long lines of voters that were expected at precinct polling locations on Ohio’s originally scheduled primary Election Day, and he believes there is “minimal risk” of spread through the election.

DeWine encouraged those who do vote in person to wear masks.

The state avoided a “disaster” by shuttering the polls on March 17, preventing voters and 35,000 poll workers from spreading the virus, DeWine said.

“The further we get into this epidemic, the more right that decision looks,” DeWine said.

Leonard said Franklin County plans to queue voters outside the board of elections on Morse Road and is setting up as much equipment as it can while maintaining social distancing in its voting center. Elections workers will have masks and will work in teams to disinfect machines after a voter casts a ballot.

County facilities crews are building shields similar to those being used in retail settings to separate workers from voters, he said. The board will have hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

State law mandated that only disabled voters and those who cannot receive mail could vote in person Tuesday, but LaRose’s directive tells boards of elections that they are not allowed to question voters who say they fall into either category.

Any voter who already has requested an absentee ballot will be required to cast a provisional ballot if they attempt to vote in-person Tuesday. Keeling said LaRose’s directive was not a new policy and already exists within election law.

So far, though, LaRose’s office has not issued guidance to boards on counting those ballots. Elections officials are expecting more direction from the secretary of state but had not received it as of Friday afternoon.

“We firmly believe that the (secretary of state) understands the consequences to different counties counting ballots differently and believe they are committed to avoiding that scenario,” Ockerman said.

Allowing Ohio’s 88 counties to each decide how to count those provisional ballots would invite lawsuits if counties applied criteria differently, he said.

Keeling said on Friday afternoon that county prosecutors have discretion about how provisional votes are counted, “but it is expected that they would all follow state law that states requests must be received by the noon Saturday deadline for an absentee ballot to count.”

Leonard said Franklin County is still encouraging voters who requested absentee ballots to watch for the ballot in the mail. Voters who receive their absentee ballots can drop them off at their county board of elections before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Mailing the ballots have proven unreliable, elections officials have said. LaRose wrote a letter on Thursday to Ohio’s congressional delegation asking for help in working through delays with the U.S. Postal Service.

Some mail has taken as long as seven to nine days to be delivered, potentially jeopardizing some voters’ ballots. Franklin County’s elections board mailed a ballot to one voter on April 8, but it still had not arrived on Thursday, Leonard said.

He said the safest way to ensure the board receives the ballot request is to take it to the board of elections rather than mailing it. Mailed ballots have to be postmarked by Monday and arrive at the board of elections by May 8, or voters can drop off absentee ballots in a drop-box at their county board of elections before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The U.S. Postal Service did not respond to questions by deadline.

LaRose’s office said in a press release late on Friday evening that the secretary had spoken to postal service officials about improvements to the system ahead of Ohio’s primary election.

Those include: an “all clear” process to ensure election mail is processed each day, hand-to-hand delivery for election mail processed on Saturday, checking collection bins for late arriving ballots and tracking election mail deliveries to Ohio boards of elections from April 27 to May 8.

Northwest Ohio election mail will be processed in Ohio rather than being routed through Detroit, according to LaRose’s office, and an independent investigative unit will do further checks at Ohio postal facilities.

Voter advocates said the provisional ballot option is a fair alternative for those who do not receive their absentee ballots in time.

“While we encourage voters to do everything possible to remain safe, we also recognize that Ohioans should not have been forced to choose between their health and their right to vote.,” Camille Wimbish, election administration director at Ohio Voice, which supports progressive, nonpartisan leaders and voter rights, said in a prepared statement.

“The Ohio legislature must stop working against voters and do its job,” Wimbush said. “They must let Ohioans exercise their right to vote and stop putting Ohio families, workers and neighbors in danger.”


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Newsrust: Coronavirus: Ohio elections officials prep for lines Tuesday despite mostly mail-in voting - News - The Columbus Dispatch
Coronavirus: Ohio elections officials prep for lines Tuesday despite mostly mail-in voting - News - The Columbus Dispatch
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