The nightmare scenario for the November presidential vote is a larger repeat of Wisconsin’s chaotic and dangerous April state Supreme Court election, in which state Republican leaders risked the health of voters in search of partisan electoral advantage. The result was interminable polling-place lines and untold numbers of people deterred from voting. These consequences were widely predicted, and the voter suppression seemed to be the point.
But there is another, perhaps more likely, model of pandemic election failure: that of Ohio, which completed its primary process on Friday. State officials fumbled into the vote, recognizing that covid-19 would force changes in voter behavior but failing to prepare for the strain those changes would put on their system. They failed to account for how preexisting problems with absentee-voting systems and antiquated voter rules would be amplified. The result was voter confusion, accounts of effective voter disenfranchisement and rock-bottom voter turnout.
Ohio’s vote was initially scheduled for March 17. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) pushed to have the date moved to June 2. Instead, the legislature all but closed in-person voting locations, where early voting had been proceeding, and pressed voters to cast ballots by mail, decreeing that absentee ballots had to be postmarked by April 27 and that they had to arrive by Friday to count. DeWine and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) wanted more time, and they were right. Even with more than a month to transition voters to mail-in balloting, neither the state nor its people were ready.
The state should have mailed absentee ballots, or at least absentee ballot applications, to all voters, particularly after the legislature ordered a nearly all-mail election. Instead, voters had limited time to navigate a two-step process that required them to send in paper request forms, wait for a ballot and then mail back the ballot in time to count. Election officials were swamped as nearly 2 million Ohioans asked for absentee ballots. Slow mail service worsened bureaucratic delays. The Columbus Dispatch reported that thousands of voters did not get absentee ballots in time to vote by mail. They could cast provisional ballots at the few polling places that remained open, but they had to weigh the risks of contact with poll workers and fellow voters during a still-raging pandemic.
Seemingly trivial matters, such as Ohio’s lack of an online absentee ballot request form, made a difference as voters struggled to cope with unnecessarily complex procedures. “It just does not meet expectations in the year 2020 to require people to print a form and to put a wet ink signature on a dead tree piece of paper to fold it up, root through their junk drawer to find a stamp and mail it to their board of elections,” LaRose told the Dispatch. Along with building an online request system, he favors paying for voters’ absentee ballot postage costs and investing in mail-in ballot equipment. “These are decisions that need to be made sooner rather than later so that Ohioans can be well-informed about what circumstances are going to be going forward into November,” he said.
Indeed, if Ohio or any other state is as ill-prepared in November, the results would be far worse. FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich found that this year’s Ohio primary attracted extremely low voter participation, preventing even more strain on state election officials and the U.S. Postal Service. The low turnout reflects the reality that neither party’s presidential nominee was in doubt for much of the voting period. But it also may be a sign that the pandemic, along with voter confusion and concern, deterred people from voting. If more than the small minority of eligible Ohioans wanted to vote, as should be the case in November, the consequences would have been far more tumultuous.
Mismanagement as well as malice can be perilous to democracy. Yet even as LaRose and some other Ohio Republicans push their state to prepare properly for the general election, still others are dragging their feet in hope that the pandemic will clear up by November. This kind of thinking needs to end, in Ohio and everywhere else. Otherwise, the legitimacy of the November vote — and people’s lives — will be in peril.