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Virus Outbreak Elections Ohio

A sign is taped to a door leading into a polling location at the Messiah Lutheran Church on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Lyndhurst, Ohio. Ohio called off its presidential primary just hours before polls were set to open there and in three other states, an 11th-hour decision the governor said was necessary to prevent further fueling the coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed the nation.

Ohio is holding its primary election almost entirely by mail in what could be a model for the rest of the nation in November.

The contest is a canary in the coal mine for more than a dozen states still planning presidential and state primaries this year. They're aiming for either a fully vote-by-mail elections or for far more ballots than usual to be cast by mail. Tuesday's contest is also likely to guide officials as they plan for November's presidential election, which could be similarly restricted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ohio aims to be a counterpoint to Wisconsin, where the Republican-led legislature blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers's efforts to delay the April 7 primary contest, resulting in thousands of people not receiving absentee ballots and blocks-long lines outside polling places on Election Day. At least 40 Milwaukee residents who stood in line or worked the polls have since tested positive.

The primary also takes place as New York, which has been ravaged by the coronavirus, yesterday canceled its primary.

"What I saw from the outside looking in in Wisconsin looked very chaotic and candidly dangerous to me," Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told me. "I would not want that scenario in Ohio and I think we've taken the right steps to prevent it."

Nearly 2 million Ohioans have requested mail-in ballots and about 1.5 million have cast those ballots, according to state figures.

That's a greater than 400% increase over absentee voting in the 2016 primary and basically on par with the total number of votes cast in the 2018 primary elections, according to numbers maintained by LaRose's office. While former vice president Joe Biden has effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination, Ohio's ballot includes several congressional and local races that are still contested.

That should be a lesson for other states that voting by mail is likely to surge in November - even if they don't do anything to promote it, Marian Schneider, president of the voting security group Verified Voting and a former state election official in Pennsylvania, told me.

It means states and counties should begin buying up tools such as industrial scanners and mail sorters they'll need for a big increase in mail-in ballots, she said. They should also begin to ink new contracts for printing those ballots, she said.

Those moves will be especially important for states where only a small percentage of people typically vote by mail or normally require an excuse such as illness or travel for absentee voting but plan to loosen restrictions during the pandemic.

States should also consider sending ballots directly to registered voters rather than having them request ballots, Schneider said. That's a system that has been criticized by some Republicans who say it encourages voter fraud.

"There's enormous interest in mail voting and it will be smoother if they spend the time ramping up," she said.

Ohio has also faced obstacles as it geared up for its primary.

Notably, the U.S. Postal Service had to make a series of last-minute upgrades to ensure a large number of requested ballots aren't stuck in transit on Election Day.

LaRose said he expects a small number of people who didn't yet receive their absentee ballots will today cast provisional votes at in-person polling sites - but far from the approximately 9,000 people in a similar situation in Wisconsin. They'll vote at polling sites set up for people with disabilities that make it impractical to vote by mail and homeless voters who are also authorized to vote in person.

The state legislature also rejected a plan from LaRose that would have delayed the election until June 2 and sent all registered voters a form to request an absentee ballot. Instead the state sent registered voters a postcard outlining how to request a mail-in ballot.

The vote also highlights a division on mail voting between President Donald Trump and many Republic election officials in the run-up to November.

Trump has attacked the shift to voting by mail during the pandemic as "horrible," "corrupt," and "a very dangerous thing for this country," saying the move could promote widespread fraud and be used to aid Democrats' election chances. That's despite voting by mail himself in Florida this year.

Republican election officials in states including Ohio, Iowa and West Virginia, meanwhile, have embraced mail voting during the primaries as a solution to ensure voters can cast ballots without risking their health during the pandemic.

"Notwithstanding what a few folks have said, a lot of state and local election officials, both R and D, know the importance of voting by mail, especially during a pandemic," David Levine, the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told me. "They know the role voting by mail can play in ensuring a safe, secure and accurate November election."

But Trump's criticism could make it more politically perilous for Republicans to embrace mail voting in the general election.

It could also make it tougher for Democrats to secure about $3.6 billion in federal election funding they say is necessary to implement large-scale mail voting nationwide and to take other pandemic-related precautions such as mandating extra early voting days.

LaRose, for one, says he hopes more Ohioans can vote in person in November. But he plans to be prepared for another all-mail contest.

He will present plans to the governor and legislature in the next few weeks for how that can happen. The plans will include allowing voters to request mail voting forms and verify their identities online, and to mail absentee request forms with postage-paid envelopes to all the state's registered voters.

"A lot of things about this primary election are not ideal, but given the circumstances I think we'll be able to say we ran an election that was fair, accessible and secure," he said. "Leaders across the world right now are making choices between bad and worse outcomes. For November there are a variety of things I hope we can do better."

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