Ohio elections chief pushes for changes before fall vote

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio needs to take the application process for mail-in ballots online, agree to pay postage on return applications and ballots and make other voting-law changes in order to assure a smooth presidential election in November, the state’s top elections official said Tuesday.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told The Associated Press that he’s begun lobbying lawmakers and legislative leaders on the need to act quickly.

“(Ohioans) overcame adversity to vote, but they shouldn’t have to,” LaRose said. “The lessons from last week need to be applied to November so that Ohioans have a convenient opportunity to vote this November.”

LaRose’s proposed changes would:

- Allow online requests for a vote-by-mail ballot, rather than requiring a form to be printed off from the internet or requested by phone;

- Allow ballot requests, as well as ballots, to include postage-paid envelopes, which could prevent the need to visit a Post Office amid virus-related restrictions on movement;

- Move the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot from noon on the Saturday before the vote to a week before the vote;

- Release more of the available federal funds to Ohio’s 88 bipartisan county boards of elections to buy equipment or hire personnel needed to handle the heavier vote-by-mail load.

“It doesn’t require huge changes to the way Ohio runs elections,” LaRose said. “Because we have a fundamentally sound and strong way of running elections in Ohio.”

He said he also supports the possible reduction of the number of polling places open in the fall, in order to conserve resources. That decision would be up to each individual county election board, he said.

The state’s primary election was extended from March 17 to April 28 due to the public health threat posed by the coronavirus. The experience spotlighted several weaknesses in Ohio’s vote-by-mail system, already criticized as cumbersome of some voting-rights groups.

Heavier than expected turnout added to logistical issues and a lack of access for some voters.

LaRose had to urgently enlist Ohio’s congressional delegation in the election cycle’s final days to help intervene with the U.S. Postal Service, after a flood of mail in both directions seemed to be moving too slowly. While that intervention was ultimately successful, election boards are currently working through the ballots of 44,000 people who voted provisionally, for reasons including that the mail-in ballot they requested never arrived.

The secretary said he heads into his latest effort to advocate for change armed with the backing of the bipartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials. Yet he still may face pushback.

LaRose and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, working together, were unable to persuade lawmakers to hold the primary further out, on June 2; to mail absentee applications to all voters who’d yet to cast a ballot; or to pay the postage for returning those applications.

But LaRose said his conversations with legislative leaders so far have been “very positive.”

“I think what we want is the same thing,” he said. “At least, I go into this assuming that we all have the same good intentions of making sure that we can offer convenience for voters but also a secure election and a healthy election experience this November. I think this is something that Ohioans rightfully expect from their government leaders.”

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said it is her hope that the rush to reschedule Ohio’s primary was responsible for some of LaRose’s earlier ideas not being incorporated into their COVID-19 relief bill and that, this time around, there will be more time to educate lawmakers on logistical needs.