Vote-by-Mail in Ohio: Planning for November

A follow up to our 5/6 Webinar on Vote-By-Mail, with answers to more of your questions.

Thanks to all who joined the webinar about voting by mail on May 6. Here are answers to some more of your questions. 

How long has Ohio had vote-by-mail? What’s the difference between absentee voting and vote-by-mail? Ohioans have been able to cast an absentee ballot by mail for decades but it wasn’t until 2006 that Ohio voters didn’t have to have an excuse like travel or illness. “No fault absentee” voting or voting by mail has gained in popularity since then. The 2020 Primary was the first election in which most voters cast absentee ballots or voted by mail. Some states are considered vote-by-mail states because the voters predominantly vote using the mail. States like Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington send ballots to all voters, rather than relying on a two step process where voters have to submit an application to vote-by-mail. 

Should we encourage Ohioans to vote-by-mail? Yes. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted our lives and made it necessary to take steps to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. Social distancing precautions will remain necessary until there is a vaccine. Voting by mail allows Ohioans to cast a ballot from the comfort of their own homes and reduces the number of voters at the polls which will help make in-person voting safer.

What can we do to help that does not take a change in law or public policy? 

  • Educate voters about all aspects of vote-by-mail. Inform them about how to apply for a ballot. Share this video and graphic about how to fill out a vote-by-mail application. Explain that the Boards of Elections will send out the ballots 30 days before the November election, and that voters can track their ballot once the application has been received.
  • Request your “no fault” absentee ballot today and encourage other Ohioans to do the same. There is no reason to wait until closer to the November election. Putting in requests early makes fulfilling vote-by-mail requests much easier for the Board of Elections officials and eases the pressure of last minute requests. 

What are the best ways to improve Ohio’s vote-by-mail system? Here are some simple changes that would encourage voting by mail and streamline the process. 

  • Fully fund a vote-by-mail program. Directly mailing every registered voter an absentee ballot would maximize voter participation in light of COVID-19. At a minimum, pressure is needed to ensure that Ohio’s legislature allocates federal funding to the Ohio Secretary of State to prepay postage on return envelopes for absentee applications and completed ballots. 
  • Permit more than one early vote center and secure drop box per county. Ohio law currently prohibits counties from having more than one early voting location, which is challenging for voters with limited transportation. Both urban and rural voters often have to travel long distances to utilize the absentee dropbox or to vote early-in person.
  • Permit online absentee ballot requests. Ohio needs to modernize its absentee ballot requests process so that access to printing and postage is not a barrier to voting by mail. Currently, voters submit paper applications through the mail system, which adds additional steps and delays to the vote by mail process. If that voter makes a simple clerical error, that voter must restart the process by mail, adding time and confusion.

The Ohio legislature needs to hear from you! Click here to take action. 

Does promoting and improving Ohio’s vote-by-mail system mean an end to in-person voting? No. Even if a high percentage of voters choose to vote-by-mail, there will always be a need for in-person voting options. In-person voting is important to many groups of voters for a variety of reasons. For example, it offers voters with disabilities the opportunity to vote privately and independently. Transient voters rely on in-person voting options if they are not able to receive mail. Black and brown communities with a long history of voter suppression have a strong tradition and preference for voting in-person so that they can see their ballots being cast. Survivors of domestic violence and those in controlling relationships may prefer to cast in-person ballots. Rural voters are often deeply impacted by mail delays, and may prefer to vote in-person, or need to utilize a conveniently located drop box to return their ballots on time. There are ways to make in-person voting healthy and safe for those who need or prefer it, while still encouraging more Ohioans to vote by mail.

Is there a way to allow all voters to vote-by-mail, while still preserving the community aspect of in-person voting? Ohioans can return their vote-by-mail ballots to the Board of Elections in-person rather than mailing them in. Colorado has drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots in many communities which helps preserve the important act of casting a vote by putting it in the ballot box. Ohio currently permits County Boards of Elections to provide one drop box per county at the Board of Elections or Early Vote site. Expanding the number of drop boxes would encourage vote-by-mail while fostering an experience similar to in-person ballot casting. These drop boxes also ensure that the ballots are properly delivered to the Board of Elections. In Colorado, voters sometimes get together for ballot parties in which they discuss their choices and debate the issues. 

How does funding the US Postal Service impact vote-by-mail? The pandemic has hit the Postal Service hard; without financial support from the federal government, the agency faces possible bankruptcy. The Postal Service normally runs without taxpayer funds and relies on its profits, but without an infusion of cash, regular mail delivery could be interrupted. It is important to keep in mind that rural areas of the country rely on the Postal service for the delivery of vital goods, including medicine. In March, the Trump administration nixed a bipartisan proposal to provide $13 billion to the Postal Service. This is particularly problematic in light of the need to expand vote-by-mail. In order for vote-by-mail to work, we need reliable mail. Click here to show your support of the Postal Service. 

I’m not sure that I trust the Postal Service with my ballot. Why should I do so? All Ohio voters can track their ballots on their county Board of Elections’ websites. It is particularly important to be sure that the Board has received your application. Voters can request to vote-by-mail but hand in their ballot in person at their Board of Elections. 

Should we be worried about fraudulent or insecure vote-by-mail in Ohio? We need to ensure that voting is both safe and secure. There are procedures to ensure that only eligible votes are counted: voter identification (last 4 digits of the Social Security number or driver’s license number), appropriate address, and signature-match. Only the voter and his/her/their immediate family are permitted to return the vote-by-mail ballot to the Board of Elections. With these safeguards, boards of elections are able to detect irregularities. 

Do voters support vote-by-mail? A national poll conducted in March, found that 70% of Ohioans support voting by mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington (states that rely primarily on vote-by-mail) supported this system of voting by more than 71%. Conservative Utah approved of vote-by-mail by 82%.  

Is voting by mail cheaper or more expensive than in-person voting? There is no easy answer to this question. An initial investment to promote vote-by-mail may be more expensive, but costs could then go down over the long term. However, it is important to invest in the infrastructure of democracy. The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated the cost: at least $2 billion to support Boards of Elections all over the country. In the third coronavirus stimulus bill, Congress appropriated $400 million for the states to help them with election administration. 

Does vote-by-mail advantage one political party over the other? A Stanford University study released in April found that voting by mail wasn’t an advantage for either party. Click here for prior studies 

Lee Drutman of New America describes the partisan impact this way: “In short: voting by mail is more convenient for some voters but more difficult for others, and these conflicting factors appear to cancel each other out, dampening any partisan advantage.” 

President Trump is opposed to vote-by-mail. Is this a partisan issue? Many issues have become unexpectedly partisan but President Trump has voted by mail. The Washington Times, National Review, and the American Enterprise Institute have published pieces in favor of vote-by-mail. 

How does vote-by-mail impact voter turnout? Oregon and Washington, the states that pioneered all-mail elections, have long been among the highest-turnout states in presidential elections. A 2013 study of voters in Washington by professors from Yale University and the University of California-San Diego, found that voting by mail increased turnout by two to four percentage points.

Is there any evidence of voters who use vote-by-mail being better informed about the candidates? Voters who cast their ballots via mail are able to do additional research if they find a race that they hadn’t initially prepared to vote for. Many voters on election day are surprised at the polls by some judicial races or wish that they had more information about ballot issues. Oregon’s Secretary of State provides voters with voting guides similar to the ones that the League of Women Voters of Ohio produces which makes it harder to figure out whether the system of voting makes a significant difference or whether the voter guide and broad voter education is more significant. 

Many voters experienced problems during the Primary. What should we do differently? All Ohio voters should receive prepaid vote-by-mail applications, and postage needs to be prepaid on ballots as well. Ohio needs to provide more voter education and expand early in-person voting because not everyone wants to vote by mail. The Boards of Elections need additional resources so that they can run a functional, robust election in November with both expanded vote-by-mail and in-person options.