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With Fall Approaching Fast, Ohio Advocates Push For Urgent Election Reforms

Security outside of the Franklin County Board of Elections on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
Security outside of the Franklin County Board of Elections on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

Ohio's spring election saw the shuttering of polling places and the extension of absentee voting as COVID-19 spread throughout the state. To avoid confusion before the November election, voting rights groups are asking lawmakers to change voting laws now, but the two groups aren't necessarily on the same page when it comes to making reforms.

There is bipartisan legislation pendingbefore Ohio lawmakers that would simplify and consolidate the voting process. But David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, says that latter point concerns him.

“Consolidation is a red flag for much more crowded polling places and long lines," Pepper says.

Pepper fears there won’t be enough voting machines at enough polling places, a problem that led to many minority voters and students being unable to cast ballots in the 2004 election. Pepper says changes made after that mandated ratios for electronic machines based on the number of voters.

Now, he fears the legislation being considered will undo that ratio requirement.

Gary Daniels says the ACLU of Ohio has worked with other voter rights groups to come up with recommendations they’ve sent to Ohio’s leaders. Daniels says the group wants to ensure any legislative reforms make it easier, not harder, to vote. 

“One of them is to make sure voters have ballots sent to them, postage paid, so that they don’t have to first request those, then wait for them to get sent to them then fill it out and send it back, because what we found in the primary is that was a cumbersome, time consuming process," Daniels says.

Jim O'Bryan drops off his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.
Credit Tony Dejak / Associated Press
Associated Press
Jim O'Bryan drops of his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.

Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, says she doesn't oppose the idea but thinks the legislature likely won't approve it. Miller says there are other changes that could make the process easier.

“Everyone gets an application," Miller says. "Pre-paid postage for the application and the ballot. Also, you can apply online. We do want both of those," Miller says.

SB 191, introduced by state Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green), includes those provisions.

Aaron Ockerman, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, says the legislation also seeks to change the deadline for requesting a ballot.

“There’s an element in Ohio law that allows people to request an absentee ballot all of the way up until Saturday before the election, and if you request a ballot that late in the game, the Post Office, on a good day, is not going to get you your ballot in time to vote it," Ockerman says.

For the extended March primary, many Ohioans dropped their ballots at county boards of elections because the ballots arrived too late to be returned. Ockerman says the new bill would not increase lines.

"Really, what we are trying to do is utilize spaces that are going to be more conducive for social distancing," Ockerman says. "So we are not going to be able to vote in nursing homes and places like that as we have in the past. So what we are really looking for is high school gymnasiums, or shopping malls where people can really spread out. That’s the kind of thing we are talking about. So, what we have asked the legislature to do is free us up to be able to utilize those spaces."

Ockerman says the ratios on electronic machines are archaic because most counties are now using optical scan machines anyway. 

Any reforms under consideration will need to pass the legislature soon. Ohio lawmakers will break for the summer in June and are not expected to come back before November. 

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.