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Franklin County Election Officials Blame Coronavirus For Low Voter Turnout

Debbie Holmes
Provisional voter at Franklin County Board of Elections headquarters on Morse Road.

Ohio’s 2020 presidential primary ended with about 20% voter turnout, after some major disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Just the pandemic in general, of COVID-19. I think the postponement of the March 17 election may have played a role,” says Aaron Sellers, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections.

In 2016, voter turnout reached 41% for a presidential primary race that included Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. That amounted to about 350,000 voters in Franklin County alone.

In this year's primary, Franklin County had 851,829 eligible voters. While Trump ran unopposed in Ohio, former Vice President Joe Biden had already knocked out his Democratic opponents, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"When you know races are for the most part set, it's going to certainly lower turnout if the race has already been decided, and that happened quite a bit in a lot of races in this cycle,” Sellers says.

The original March 17 in-person primary was cancelled and restructured to mainly a mail-in ballot primary. Gov. Mike DeWine and other state officials had ordered polls closed over concerns of the spread of COVID-19.

Sellers says preparations were made for in-person voting for those with visual impairment or with no permanent address. However, because of mail delays, the board of elections also allowed voters who had not received a mailed ballot in time to cast a provisional ballot.

On Tuesday, 1,224 people voted at the Board of Elections headquarters on Morse Road with a provisional ballot, and another 190 voted because of visual impairment or because of address issues.

“What we did is, we prepared to put the most number of machines and people in here with the social distancing component so that we could handle as many as possible,” Sellers says.

Sellers says poll workers at the Franklin County Board of Elections took precautions like wearing masks or gloves. Some workers wiped down the voting screens after each use, even though each voter received a finger covering for protection.

Complications surrounding the coronavirus pandemic could continue through November’s general election. Sellers says he will follow the guidelines set by the Secretary of State’s office.

"Hopefully we'll know how we're going to proceed as soon as possible so that we can begin the process of planning, you know procurement of supplies, staffing, so that we can do it to the best of our ability," Sellers says.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.