WASHINGTON — Ohio Democrats are fuming over a recent decision to levy what they call a “modern-day poll tax” on voters this fall: the cost of the stamps needed to mail a ballot.
The state’s GOP-led Controlling Board this week rejected a $3 million proposal to pay for postage on absentee ballots and ballot application forms. The board, an agency of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, oversees state agencies’ capital and operating expenditures.
The move means that Ohioans, like many other Americans, will have to buy postage in order to exercise their right to vote, in a year expected to see a huge surge in mail-in voting due to the pandemic. But how many stamps Ohio voters will need has not been specified by the secretary of state’s office. “The amount of stamps varies on the size of the ballot. We encourage voters to contact their board of elections with any questions they may have,” said Maggie Sheehan, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office.
Just 17 states cover the cost of postage on absentee ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They include Arizona, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin. Others, such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Carolina, have announced they will provide prepaid postage for ballots in this year’s elections, according to Reuters news service.
Critics say the lack of prepaid postage could disenfranchise voters this year. At special risk are older people, who are at higher risk of complications of COVID-19 and may be reluctant to vote in person, and lower-income people, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet amid a recession.
The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit over the issue in April on behalf of the advocacy group Black Voters Matter. A district court dismissed the case in August, and ACLU of Georgia appealed the ruling this month.The court said voting in person is still an option and that the 24th Amendment, which bans poll taxes, was enacted to address other “specific evils” — not the cost of postage.
Requiring voters to pay for postage not only violates the U.S. Constitution but also imposes burdens on voters and organizations working to turn out voters, they argued.
Many people don’t have postage stamps handy and have to risk exposure to COVID-19 to get them, advocates said. Those who don’t own cars may have to use ride-sharing services or public transportation, which don’t exist in rural areas. Voters who buy stamps online often have to buy them in bulk. And online purchases aren’t possible for people without internet access or credit cards.
Voters may also use more postage than necessary, lawyers added. “It hardly bears mention that few people actually own stamp scales.”
Ohio’s decision not to pay for return postage comes as mail delivery has slowed down and Democrats in Congress blast the head of the Postal Service.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ally of President Donald Trump and a GOP megadonor, has said delays are the result of operational changes made to streamline operations and save costs, but critics say they are a deliberate attempt on the part of the administration to sabotage the elections by slowing down the mail.
“The new head of the Postal Service has done lots of things … to cause all kinds of problems,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said Wednesday in a call with reporters. The problems, he said, are due to incompetence or “something worse” and perhaps ordered by the president.
Brown — who served as Ohio’s secretary of state four decades ago — also slammed the current secretary of state, Republican Frank LaRose, who he said could have used his existing authority to provide prepaid postage. “Instead, he REFUSED and passed the buck to the Ohio Controlling Board, which then rejected the proposal,” Brown tweeted Tuesday.
Other Democratic members of the congressional delegation joined in. The decision is “as out of touch as one might expect,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur said in a statement. “The fact that Republicans rejected the proposal during a Zoom meeting is painfully ironic,” she added.
LaRose called the ruling a “missed opportunity” in a statement on his website and said he could not make the change himself.
Nearly all of the $12.8 million authorized by Congress in March for Ohio election-related expenses has gone to county boards of elections and to absentee ballot requests, he wrote this month in a letter to Brown, Kaptur and other Ohio lawmakers. There’s not enough left to pay for statewide return postage and remaining funds are needed for emergencies, he said.
“The suggestion that I take those resources away from the county boards of elections and use them to pay for the return postage on absentee ballots, especially when the resources exist within my office’s business services budget to do just that, simply does not make sense.”
In an email, Sheehan pointed to U.S. Postal Service statements that it won’t reject ballots that lack sufficient postage.
USPS spokesperson Marti Johnson confirmed that USPS “will not delay delivery of completed mail-in ballots” that lack sufficient postage and will attempt to collect postage from the state’s board of elections — possibly shifting the buck to the state anyway.
The secretary of state’s website says voters are responsible for ensuring that ballots have enough postage but does not note how much is required. It also encourages voters to get mail-in ballots postmarked and warns voters against using postage meters or online services like www.stamps.com to affix postage.
Absentee ballots can take two to five days to be delivered to local boards of elections.
Ohio Democrats have been calling for prepaid postage for weeks.
Earlier this month, Brown, Kaptur and Reps. Marcia Fudge, Tim Ryan and Joyce Beatty sent a letter to LaRose urging him to use his existing authority to prepay return postage for mail in ballots and applications and to work with the Postal Service to ensure that Ohio ballots are delivered on time and have visible postmarks.
“In an election where many citizens’ only practical option is to vote by mail, forcing Ohioans to pay postage in order to exercise this right is akin to a modern-day poll tax,” they wrote. “Nothing in the Ohio code prohibits you from prepaying return postage on both ballot application forms and ballots themselves.”
They also urged LaRose to reconsider his decision to bar local boards of election from providing more than one secure ballot drop box for completed absentee ballots in each county.
Under his policy, Noble County, which has fewer than 8,000 registered voters, would have the same number of secure ballot boxes as Franklin and Cuyahoga Counties, which have more than 850,000 voters each, they wrote in an August letter to LaRose. “In rural parts of Ohio, voters could be required to travel up to an hour to reach the closest ballot drop box,” they added.
On Tuesday, a Columbus judge ruled against LaRose’s decision to restrict the number of drop boxes, calling it “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
Sheehan told WOSU Public Media that LaRose will appeal the ruling.
Allison Stevens is a Washington D.C. reporter for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Ohio Capital Journal. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.