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Campaign From Home: How Candidates Are Adjusting To Ohio's Absentee Primary

Rep. Joyce Beatty and Congressional candidate Morgan Harper.
Associated Press
Rep. Joyce Beatty and Congressional candidate Morgan Harper.

Boards of elections around Ohio are stuffing envelopes with ballot requests and ballots to be delivered to mailboxes all over the state. The absentee voting process isn’t new, but Ohio's new circumstances are putting fresh scrutiny on the multi-step process.

“I don’t know about you, but if I had to guess—how many of my friends have a printer at their house?” asks Alaina Shearer, sounding skeptical as she mulls the question. She's one of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district.

“Let alone envelopes and stamps right now?” Shearer continues. “Honestly, I don’t think I have stamps right now. It’s just not—we’ve got to create an online request form.”

At least for now, Ohio has a new system for its primary election, after the March 17 election was canceled over concerns about the coronavirus. Voting rights groups are challenging the absentee-based procedures in federal court, demanding more time, more outreach and a reopened window for voter registrations.

While that case works its way through the process, Ohio candidates are reorganizing their campaigns on the fly—trying to sustain their efforts for an extra month while finding new ways to engage voters.  

Shearer is a first-time candidate, vying for a chance to face Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) in the fall. Her bid, and many others like it, are an uphill climb even if everything goes right.

Now they're taking to social media and video conferencing platforms to engage volunteers, and to encourage voters to get ballot requests, and then ballots, in the mail on time.

Ohio Voting Guide: What To Know About The 2020 Election

Still, Shearer says the territory is familiar. Prior to running for Congress, she started a digital ad agency and launched a professional network for women in tech.

“We get to spend less money on old, outdated forms of communication and marketing,” she says of her campaign. “So this is a chance to prove what we can do on a low budget with limited resources, through creativity, through reaching out to voters online, connecting with them in this moment where we’re all feeling so isolated.”

Shearer's opponent for the Democratic nomination is Jenny Bell, a nurse practitioner. Bell notes her day job has been a bit busy lately, but COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of issues like health care.

“You know whether it’s coronavirus today or if it was insulin two months ago, this stuff really matters,” Bell says. “And we need somebody in Washington that understands this from the inside, and will go and yell and scream.”

In a statement, Balderson’s campaign declined to say how his strategy has changed. But he praised Gov. Mike DeWine and state lawmakers for their actions in recent weeks, saying that “unique circumstances such as these require unique solutions.”

Next door, in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional district, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) has much the same response to state leaders’ actions. She issued a statement saying lawmakers “found a bipartisan solution that allows Ohioans to cast their ballots from their homes without risking their health or safety.”

Beatty faces a challenge from the left in her heavily Democratic district. Her opponent, Morgan Harper, says shifting focus to a different balloting process is a challenge.

“It is a bit cumbersome,” Harper says of Ohio’s absentee voting system, “so I think that more time would have been useful. But we will confront this timeline as laid out by the legislature and do what we can to make sure that people are able to exercise their right to vote.”

Harper, who supports "Medicare For All," says the spread of COVID-19 brings the importance of her campaign issues into sharp relief.

“There are so many really critical realities that they’re facing, and at the same time though, some of those realities around the vulnerabilities of folks’ health and financial circumstances connect to a lot of the issues that we’ve been talking about through the entire campaign,” Harper says.

As candidates scramble, school districts welcome the April 28 deadline. The original directive issued by Secretary of State Frank LaRose would have set an election deadline of June 2.

Ohio Association of School Business Officials executive director Jim Rowan says waiting that long could hurt districts with levy or bond issues on the ballot. The chief concern, he says, is retaining talent.

“If I’m a teacher and to have to wait until June to see if a levy passes and whether or not I may be cut, it might force me to go out there and look for another job when I’m very content where I’m at but I run the risk of being laid off,” Rowan says. “So this definitely allows districts to do better planning so that they can continue their programming for the next year.”

Rowan also notes interest rates are exceptionally low right now, which is good for districts looking to borrow. And getting a decision back from voters sooner rather than later could help districts whose issues fail, because they’ll have time to regroup and consider another try in the fall.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.