Two Months Out from Election Day, Ohio Nailing Down Vote-By-Mail Procedures

Mike Babinski opens applications for voter ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Cleveland.

Mike Babinski opens applications for voter ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Cleveland. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

 

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Officials decided Monday the state will not pay for postage on absentee ballots, and a pending appeal will determine whether voters can request absentee ballots by email.

The presidential election is less than two months away and states will begin distributing absentee ballots in the coming weeks.

But even as states are preparing to mail out ballots in the coming weeks, some are still fine-tuning the process by which they will handle absentee ballots.

Case and point is Ohio, where officials decided Monday that the state will not pay for the cost of postage when voters return ballots by mail. The decision came on the heels of a court ruling over the weekend that will dictate how Ohio voters request absentee ballots.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has raised concern about the impact both of the decisions will have on voters in the state.

The Ohio Controlling Board, which oversees adjustments to the state budget, voted Monday to deny a request from the secretary of state’s office to spend $3 million to cover the cost of return postage for all absentee ballots mailed for the general election.

Ohio’s House of Representatives approved legislation earlier this year that would ban the secretary of state from using funds to pay for return postage on absentee ballots or ballot applications, but the measure hasn’t become law. Still, several Republican members of the controlling board said the matter should be left up to the legislature, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.

LaRose, a Republican, called the board’s decision a “missed opportunity” to improve the state’s elections system and encouraged voters to make the plans necessary to vote early—whether in person or absentee.

Ohio House Democrats said the decision would make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots this year.

“Republicans have repeatedly made it clear that they are not interested in making this general election as accessible as possible during a pandemic,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes.

The state is also engaged in  a lawsuit that will dictate whether voters can request absentee ballots electronically or if they must do so by mail—a process that could take a longer amount of time and make it more difficult for voters to return ballots in a timely manner.

On Friday, a judge ordered the Ohio secretary of state to allow voters to apply for absentee ballots by electronic means, including fax or email. But the ruling was put on hold pending an appeal by the state.

The secretary of state’s office recently mailed absentee ballots applications to the 7.8 million registered voters in Ohio. If the ruling is allowed to stand, voters who would like to vote absentee could submit an application to their county election board via fax or email. The county boards could then begin mailing out blank ballots to all who request them on Oct. 6. Completed ballots would have to be mailed back or delivered in person.

But LaRose has raised concern that Ohio counties have not developed the necessary security protocols to ensure the ballot applications are kept safe from hackers or those seeking to interfere in the state’s elections.

“Ohioans need to understand that forcing our county boards to open thousands of emailed attachments is not a secure online absentee ballot request system,” LaRose said on Monday. “It puts our elections system at a far greater risk of cyberattack where just one attachment with a malicious virus could cripple an entire county’s IT infrastructure and degrade the trust voters have in our elections.”

At least 14 states allow residents to submit applications for absentee ballots online, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Another eight states allow voters to download and complete an absentee ballot application and then return the form by mail, fax or email.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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