COLUMBUS, Ohio — The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
The organization representing elections officials throughout Ohio sees a bill proposing numerous elections changes as a mixed bag.
There are some provisions in House Bill 294 the Ohio Association of Elections Officials would like to see adjusted, executive director Aaron Ockerman said Monday, while there are others it supports.
One item in particular, to eliminate early in-person voting on the Monday before Election Day, was specifically included at the request of election workers.
Ockerman detailed his organization’s perspective on HB 294 in a Zoom dialogue with Jen Miller, leader of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
Ockerman and Miller agreed that elections workers across the state did their best to navigate a difficult year in 2020 and believe there are some improvements that could be made before the next high-turnout election in 2022.
Ohio’s 88 counties each have a bipartisan board of elections and Ockerman said these local officials take pride in serving the public in a nonpartisan way.
“We just want to run good elections. We just want to serve our voters, we want to serve the public, we want our process to be transparent and open and accessible,” Ockerman said. “We’re not concerned about how people vote, we just want them to vote. That’s just the bedrock of everything we do, at our association and at boards of elections around the state.”
The motivation and timing for election reform?
As the Ohio Capital Journal has reported, House Bill 294 was introduced last week as the latest among hundreds of bills proposed across the country that restrict voting access in some way. Many of these laws stem from widespread belief from Republican lawmakers that election reforms are necessary to combat voter fraud in their states.
Ockerman noted that voter fraud is “extraordinarily rare.” He described having had numerous discussions with lawmakers about election integrity since last November and said he tries to emphasize that Ohio has a secure and well-structured system in place.
Though HB 294 is introduced amid a “national narrative” of election skepticism, Ockerman said it is not unusual to see proposals made after a presidential election — the same has happened after previous voting cycles.
This would be the time to make desired changes, he said, adding that a goal should be to wrap up legislation before the midterm elections next year.
Embracing absentee voting
Ockerman credited elections officials from the local level all the way to Secretary of State Frank LaRose for conducting a safe 2020 election during a pandemic that saw record turnout in the state.
Asked how Ohio can continue this high turnout in future elections, Ockerman said the state should continue to embrace absentee voting and make sure different options are available.
Early voting is a win-win, he explained: Ohioans can cast ballots in a manner convenient to them, and doing so prevents long lines on Election Day.
Ockerman and Miller view the provision in HB 294 to allow for online absentee ballot requests as potentially being a major improvement. Currently, voters have to request ballots using a paper form submitted to their county election office.
Online requests would streamline the process and could mitigate postal delays as many states experienced last fall.
“We need to get the post office out of this process as much as possible,” Ockerman told members of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
This viewpoint isn’t personal, he continued.
“The thing I hear from my elections officials all the time is, ‘We love the post office.’ They’re great partners. They work their butts off. They are underfunded and underappreciated, and so this is no casting of stones at them whatsoever. But we just need, if there are ways to automate the process, if there are ways to modernize the process, if there are ways to engage with voters in other means, we should be exploring those. Online absentee ballot requests, in my opinion, is a no-brainer.”
HB 294 would continue to allow requesting ballots through the traditional paper forms. Republicans have also proposed rolling back the request deadline from being three days before Election Day to being 10 days before.
Drop boxes a ‘real lightning rod’
Voting rights groups have decried provisions in HB 294 that would restrict the use of ballot drop boxes.
The bill would prohibit counties from placing boxes anywhere but the board of elections office. It would also limit their availability to only 10 days before Election Day.
“Drop boxes were a success” in 2020, Ockerman said, acknowledging they have become a “real lightning rod” in political circles.
Ohioans used drop boxes last year to submit not just completed ballots but absentee requests and voter registration forms.
“We call them ballot drop boxes, but in reality, they serve a lot of other purposes,” Ockerman said.
Ockerman said his association disagrees with the drop box limitations outlined in the bill. OAEO thinks every county should have at least one located at the board of elections office, then counties could decide from there if more are necessary.
“As long as the local board of elections can agree that there’s a need, can agree there’s a mechanism to fund them — because they are expensive — then that should be allowed to happen with those decisions taking place at the local level,” he said.
OAEO sees its position as a viable middle ground between the restrictive proposals from Republicans and the countering proposal from Democrats to require hundreds of them to be installed across the state.
Monday voting before Election Day
One noteworthy provision of House Bill 294 is the elimination of early in-person voting the day before Election Day.
Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Sharon Ray, R-Wadsworth, the bill’s lead sponsors, have made clear they included this change because election officials have advocated for it.
There is traditionally six hours of early voting time at county boards of elections the Monday before Election Day. Ockerman said OAEO does not want to see any hours cut, but instead wants to see those six hours reallocated elsewhere in the early voting schedule.
“The Monday before is just — chaotic would not even be close to an appropriate description of the day before the election,” he said. “There are literally hundreds of tasks that election officials are having to complete the 24 hours before we actually open up the polling locations all over (each) county.”
One such task is updating the pollbooks used by precinct officials on Election Day. Officials must wait until the Monday early voting closes until updating those pollbooks.
Such work is necessary for precinct workers to have a reference book of who has already voted going into Tuesday’s Election Day.
Tangible pollbooks are used as backups in case the digital pollbooks malfunction. Such was the case last November in Franklin County, which experienced a slower throughput of voters as a result. Ockerman said the issue could have been avoided had there not been Monday early voting and officials could have gotten to work earlier that day setting up for Tuesday.