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As Ohio Sees Record Early Voting Turnout, Officials Work To Ensure Safety

A social distancing sign rests on the floor as people participate during early voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press
A social distancing sign rests on the floor as people participate during early voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Cleveland.

Ohio boards of elections are seeing an unprecedented flood of early in-person voting and dropping off of absentee ballots, in spite of heated partisanship that has bred fear among some voters. Elections officials, law enforcement and citizens groups are mobilized to keep voters safe.

Judi Hill, the president of theAkron NAACP,gets behind the wheel with her message to voters. “Don’t let the information you are hearing deter you," she says. "Exercise your right to vote."

Hill talks, listens, and drives voters to the Summit County Board of Elections for free to cast ballots during early voting. She also plans to drive them to their voting precincts on Election Day, Nov. 3.

“I’m just about to drop a lady off to go to vote," Hill said, "and this is what she shared on the way to the polling location: 'I’d rather go now, then go and have to deal with some of the stupid people I hear are going to be at the polls harassing me. All I want to do is exercise my right to vote.'"

The presence of sheriff’s deputies directing traffic at the Summit County Board of Elections encourages Hill, as she believes they act as a deterrent to any potential troublemakers.

“In today’s society, everybody has the fear of being accosted or denied the opportunity to vote. Let me put that to rest,” said Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association.

He noted law enforcement agencies throughout Ohio have been working closely with boards of elections and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose for many months, and both plainclothes and uniformed officers will be quick to respond to problems on Election Day. Cornwell said they are doing that now, too, during early in-person voting and absentee ballot drop-off.

Within the first 2.5 weeks of early voting, police peacefully resolved a few confrontations without arrests, according to Cornwell.

“We ensure that nothing is inside the 100 feet to the polls," Cornwell said. "There’s [not] any kind of politicking or disruption to the election. In addition, if there is any disruption, there are several mechanisms in place to offer an alternative to the individual."

De-escalation is the key strategy explained in this Ohio Secretary of State training video for poll workers. The example in this case is how to deal with someone who violates the policy that forbids wearing clothing supporting a political candidate or ballot issue within 100 feet of the polls.

In Cuyahoga County, with close to 300 polling locations, Board of Elections director Tony Perlatti said that for the first time, they are using an internal command center, which is routinely activated for large events like the Republican National Convention in 2016.

“We have representatives from various safety forces present, and they’re all in the same room—sheriff’s department, municipal police departments, fire department, as well as cyber security resources and things like that," Perlatti said. "So we have all of those individuals together so that if something were to happen, we could quickly respond to keep the voters safe.”

The Ohio League of Women Voters is working with partner groups throughout the state to assist in areas, such as education and legal issues. Executive director Jen Miller says the organization also has a “just-in-case” scenario for which they're recruiting and training clergy and social workers to go to polling sites and defuse tension.

“We have friends in the community who can go and inject a sense of peace and calm," Miller said.

Hill praises this idea, as she continues her transportation to the polls.

“If I see someone I know, and I have an issue or concern, they are more likely to help me de-escalate than anyone else,” she said.

Hill says nothing should deter people from voting, including long lines.

“I’m actually pulling back in now, and somebody is looking like, 'I don’t think I’m going to do it,' but it’s too important for you not to vote. So please vote," Hill said.

The League of Women Voters is also posting signs at polling locations with a hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, that voters can call with any questions or problems.