First-time voters bummed, but undeterred by delayed Ohio primary

A voting location
File photo of a voting location from Wikimedia Commons by Tom Arthur.

Abra Lisowski did everything right.

The 18-year-old native of Cleveland Heights registered to vote and researched her 2020 primary ballot thoroughly. While other voters paid most attention to the presidential race, Lisowski had her eyes on a local schools levy. She was excited to cast her ballot in favor of the district.

Then COVID-19 got in the way. With support of the governor, Ohio’s health director declared a health emergency to close all voting locations just eight hours before the polls were set to open. 

First-time voters like Lisowski experienced an unwelcome introduction to the American democratic process — the unprecedented postponement of a statewide election. Many had accompanied their parents to the polls as children, watching them be greeted cheerfully by pollworkers and receive a coveted “I Voted” sticker on their way out. 

This election was supposed to be their turn.

Instead, their first vote will require navigating a multi-step absentee ballot process conducted entirely through the mail. 

“I definitely understand the concerns,” Lisowski acknowledged, “and it’s objectively the right decision to help contain (the virus) as much as possible, but I was still pretty bummed out that I was going to be missing such a big first.”

In Mahoning County, a teenager named Kennedy headed to her polling place on March 17 expecting to be one of the youngest Ohioans to cast a ballot.

The day prior had been a confusing one, with conflicting reports about the status of the primary election.

“First, it’s on, then it’s off,” Kennedy said, “then it’s on again, then it’s off again.”

The 17-year-old woke up the next morning and read an incorrect report that the election was still taking place. Kennedy felt relieved. Ever since she was a kid, she looked forward to turning 18 and casting a ballot. 

“I’m a firm believer in the ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t complain’ motto,” she explained. “Voting is absolutely necessary in this country if we want to see change at any level.”

Sometime in 2019, Kennedy learned that Americans as young as 17 can vote in primaries if they turn 18 before the general election. She made sure to register, and on the morning of March 17 she headed out to her polling place.

There were no cheerful pollworkers waiting for her. Instead, she was greeted by a sign explaining the primary had been postponed.

A polling location at a church near Hilliard sits empty on Election Day. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

The extended wait was bad enough, Kennedy said, but even more disappointing was that Ohio could lose some influence in the Democratic presidential primary. She began to worry that her vote later this spring might not matter as much for a primary battle that is all but decided by then. 

That’s not stopping her from participating. Asked if she planned to still cast a ballot, Kennedy replied, “I absolutely do.”

Lisowski offered the same enthusiasm, noting she has already submitted her request for an absentee ballot.

“I’m still excited to be able to cast my vote either way,” she said, “even if it can’t be in person like I had originally planned.”

In the coming weeks, groups tailored to young Ohio voters will work to educate them on the new absentee voting process. This includes organizations like the College Democrats, College Republicans and the Ohio Student Association, which is putting together a video explaining how voters can cast a ballot with the new primary system. 

This messaging will be important for a significant portion of the voting populace; a CNN exit poll in Michigan found that voters ages 18-24 made up 8% of the Democratic primary electorate. 

Here are some important things for young voters to know:

  • If you already voted early, you are good to go. 
  • If you haven’t, you have until late April to request an absentee ballot, receive it, fill it out then return it back to your county’s board of elections office.
  • You can check your voter registration here, and can locate your county board of elections office here
  • College students registered to vote in their college town, but are stuck back in their hometown or elsewhere: you should request a ballot from the county in which you are registered to vote. Contact them for further guidance as necessary. 
  • Your absentee ballot must be postmarked by April 27 or be dropped off to the office by 7:30 p.m. on April 28.

A full primary voting guide from the Ohio Capital Journal can be read here