COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio is among the 46 states that recently received a warning from U.S. Postal Service officials that deadlines laid out in the state’s mail-voting laws may result in voters being disenfranchised.
The letter from Thomas J. Marshall, the USPS general counsel and executive vice president, says Ohio’s deadline for requesting an absentee ballot falls too close to Election Day to guarantee it will be mailed in time, especially since a voter then would have to wait for a ballot to arrive. The state deadline to request a ballot is the Saturday before the Nov. 3 election, while mail ballots must be postmarked on Monday, Nov. 2 to be counted.
“As a result, to the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted,” reads the July 30 letter to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained via a public-records request, recommends voters request a ballot application at least 15 days before Election Day, and recommends they mail their completed ballots back to their county board of election one week before Election Day. However, in Ohio, ballots can be counted for up to 10 days after Election Day, as long as they are postmarked on Nov. 2. This potential lag between mail ballots being sent and the final votes being counted could leave the winner of the election unresolved for more than a week, elections observers have warned, given the record volume of mail-in voting expected this year.
LaRose and other Ohio officials have recommended that voters planning to vote by mail request their ballots as soon as they are able. County elections offices are accepting applications now, and the first wave of blank ballots are expected to go out in October.
Otherwise, Ohio offers 28 days of early, in-person voting. Traditional, in-person voting also will be available on Election Day.
Maggie Sheehan, a LaRose spokeswoman, said LaRose “has been preparing ways to mitigate potential delays in election mail even before the Ohio primary ended.”
This week, LaRose sought to reassure Ohioans that the state’s system of mail-in voting would be secure and reliable, and said he and his wife plan to vote by mail themselves.
LaRose had asked the state legislature to move the deadline to request an absentee ballot to 10 days before Election Day, and also sought to allow voters to request an application online, instead of the current system, which requires them to sign a paper form and deliver it to their county elections office. Online ballot applications would relieve pressure on the mail system, and save voters the trouble of finding a stamp or printing a ballot.
But the state legislature declined to act. The Ohio Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit in Franklin County that seeks to force the state to allow voters to request an absentee ballot application online.
“This is just more evidence that the Ohio General Assembly has shirked its responsibility of updating our election systems based on changes to the mail service and concerns around COVID-19,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group.
Forty-five other states received similar letters from the USPS, the Washington Post reported.
Ohio elections officials are projecting a record volume of mail-in votes this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a typical year, around 20% of voters have voted by mail in Ohio. LaRose has said that number could reach 50%.
Voting by mail, and the postal system’s capacity to process mail, has become a hot-button political issue this year as more states have expanded mail voting as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump repeatedly has claimed, without evidence, that expanded mail-in voting could lead to widespread fraud, while also calling into question the elections protocols of states planning universal ballot mailings.
Concerns have heightened among Democrats, meanwhile, that Trump is trying to sabotage the post office to prevent mail votes from being processed. Other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, have reported severe mail delays tied to staffing shortages and budget cuts.
Studies have shown that voter fraud is statistically rare, including several recent reviews by Republican Ohio secretaries of state.
Ohio conducted its first nearly all-mail vote earlier this year, after Gov. Mike DeWine effectively postponed the planned March 17 primary election day due to the coronavirus pandemic. Elections officials reported mail delays, particularly in the Toledo area. USPS officials attributed the delays to issues with a sorting facility in Detroit, and said election mail will be sorted in-state for the November election.