After a delay from its original election date, Ohio held 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 election or for far more ballots than usual to be cast by mail. Tuesday’s contest also likely will guide officials as they plan for November’s presidential election, which could be similarly restricted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Ohio aimed to be a counterpoint to Wisconsin, where the Republican-led Legislature blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ 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, on Monday 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 said. “I would not want that scenario in Ohio, and I think we’ve taken the right steps to prevent it.”
Nearly 2 million Ohioans requested mail-in ballots and about 1.5 million cast those ballots, according to state figures prior to the rescheduled primary election day.
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.
Results from Lawrence County were unavailable at press time Tuesday.
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, said.
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.
Republican election officials in states including Ohio, Iowa and West Virginia have embraced mail voting during the primaries as a solution to ensure voters can cast ballots without risking their health during the pandemic.
States should also consider sending ballots directly to registered voters rather than having them request ballots, Schneider said.
“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 expected a small number of people who didn’t yet receive their absentee ballots to cast provisional votes at in-person polling sites Tuesday.
The Ohio 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.
LaRose 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.”