Torn and defaced I Voted Today paper stickers with Closed due to Coronavirus

Ohio News Connection

Civil-rights groups caution that Ohio’s new plan to address the state’s postponed primary could deprive people of their right to vote.

To reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Mike DeWine closed the polls for the state’s March 17 primary. House Bill 197 was passed by the Legislature this week, extending mail voting for the primary to April 28.

Mike Brickner, state director with All Voting is Local Ohio, says it’s too tight of a timeline for voters to request an absentee ballot and send it back to boards of elections.

“Systems are not operating in an optimal way,” says Brickner. “Printers, and mail houses and the United States Postal Service are all also reeling from COVID-19. Will there be other delays? Boards of Elections are also not operating optimally. Many have closed or are operating on very skeleton staffs.”

Brickner and other election watchdog organizations contend the primary date should be set for no earlier than mid-May, with the voter registration deadline extended to 30 days prior as required by law.

Prentiss Haney, executive director of the Ohio Student Association, contends that more time and resources are needed to ensure every voter participate, especially college students forced off campus by new coronavirus concerns.

“It’s going to be about printers and postage, but also about knowledge and information about the process,” says Haney. “Many of our students are first-time voters, are 18 years old. They’re just coming to the electorate, and for the ones who are engaged and want to be a part of this, many of them plan to vote in person.”

Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute president Andre Washington agrees that there are many people who prefer casting a ballot at the polls on Election Day.

“My grandmother used to get up, put her Sunday hat on, put her dress on, and get all dolled up, and she would go and she voted in person because that is what she was taught to do,” says Washington. “So we don’t want to disenfranchise people. We want to protect the integrity of voting.”

Legislators rejected a plan proposed by Secretary of State Frank LaRose to set an in-person primary date of June 2, send absentee ballots to all Ohioans who have not yet voted in the primary and return ballot requests with pre-paid postage.

LaRose called the Legislature’s plan disappointing, but noted he will do what it takes to ensure all Ohio voters can safely cast a ballot.

This story was produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation