Elections 2020: LaRose caught between advocates, inactive legislature

By: - August 5, 2020 1:00 am

This voting sticker, designed by student Emily Legg, was chosen in May to be the new sticker in Ohio. Photo courtesy the Secretary of State’s Office.

Voting rights advocates have identified several changes they believe would make it easier for Ohioans to vote this November.

With time running out for the state legislature to enact laws impacting the 2020 General Election, these advocates are pleading for Secretary of State Frank LaRose to take action.

LaRose is the statewide official who oversees Ohio’s election system, and he even agrees with several of the changes proposed. But, despite advocates’ insistence to the contrary, LaRose does not feel he has the authority to take these actions unilaterally. 

LaRose has tried in 2020 — without success, thus far — to convince the Republican-led legislature to give him this authority. 

There are three months until Election Day, though early voting begins in just two months. On Tuesday, more than a dozen groups sent LaRose a letter outlining their proposals one more time with the hopes he will act before it’s too late. Several of them, representing various churches, the Ohio Student Association, the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Coalition on Black Civic Participation, held a digital press conference Tuesday to share their ideas with reporters. 

Here is what they want:

Online absentee ballot applications

LaRose agrees on this issue, but has resisted taking action by himself.

In Ohio, voters can elect to cast absentee ballots through the mail in the weeks ahead of Election Day. To do so, they have to first submit an application to receive their blank ballot to fill out.

Traditionally, this has meant mailing in the application to the voter’s county board of elections office. The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office intends to mail every eligible voter an absentee request form this fall, as it has done ahead of previous presidential elections.

Advocates say this back-and-forth system through the mail can be confusing and time-consuming. They want to see Ohioans have a chance to request a ballot online.

On the subject of absentee ballot requests, the Ohio Revised Code states: “the application need not be in any particular form” but should include all of the requisite voter information. 

Collin Marozzi, a policy strategist with ACLU of Ohio, said this demonstrates the Ohio Secretary of State website could offer online absentee ballot applications. LaRose has asked the legislature to give him this authority. 

Separately, a pair of lawsuits have been filed in relation to the absentee ballot system.

The Ohio Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit to require LaRose to allow absentee ballot requests by email. The League of Women Voters of Ohio and the A. Philip Randolph filed a different lawsuit seeking to fix the “flawed system of matching voter signatures on absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications.” As part of the existing ballot security process, some mailed-in ballots are ruled ineligible if the signatures are seen as not being a match.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Prepaid postage for mailed ballots

This is another proposal LaRose agrees with but argues he needs to be given the authority to carry out.

Advocates say making a voter locate and pay for a stamp to mail in their ballot constitutes a modern-day poll tax. 

The state legislature approved prepaid postage on ballots for the primary election, which was conducted entirely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legislators have not approved such spending for the fall, and in fact a Republican-sponsored bill which passed the Ohio House of Representatives in June expressly prohibits LaRose’s office from using state funds to pay for postage. 

LaRose supports the bill, though he said he disagrees with that component. The Ohio Senate has yet to vote on it.

There still leaves the option for LaRose to use federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to pay for the postage. His office has said more funding and Ohio Controlling Board approval would be required to do so:

Allow for multiple secure ‘drop boxes’ in each county

Besides mailing their absentee ballots, voters have an option of placing their filled-out ballot in a secure drop box. Each county has a drop box located at their respective board of elections office.

Advocates argue there should be more than one in each county this would offer more convenient access; does not require a stamp; and avoids any delays related to the U.S. Postal Service.

LaRose is generally in favor of the idea. He recently told the Statehouse News Bureau the boxes would need to be placed in “secure locations” and suggested it may be too late to install more of them.

Asked about these absentee drop boxes back in May, LaRose spokesperson Maggie Sheehan told the Ohio Capital Journal that were LaRose be allowed to prepay postage, this would effectively make every USPS mailbox a free drop box. 

Prevent polling place consolidation

Barring any health orders like Ohio saw with the primary election, it appears there will be in-person voting as is normal this fall. 

Advocates want to ensure all polling places are kept available. They fear consolidating them would lead to busy precincts for the highly-anticipated presidential election. This could lead to long lines and crowded, unsafe voting conditions. 

In June, the Jackson County Board of Elections was perhaps the first in Ohio to announce a number of polling locations would be consolidated for the fall election. 

LaRose is leaving this issue up to the county offices. In his “Ready for November” plan, LaRose said: “Whether they choose to consolidate polling locations or not, they know their voters best and can determine the best option to keep people safe while running an accessible election.”

The Ohio Capital Journal reported this week the Ohio Voting Rights Coalition continues to urge leaders to adopt safe voting procedures for the General Election. 

Ohio is still recruiting poll workers to assist with the November election. 

Voter advocates seek equal ballot access for all

Tuesday’s conference call with reporters included a number of voices who stressed the need for providing an equal and accessible playing field for all Ohio voters.

Cleveland Revs. Brian Anthony Cash of the East Mount Zion Baptist Church and Alfred Chris Attaway of the Tabernacle Church both discussed a need for voter education and support in their areas.

“Voter suppression continues to plague this community,” Cash said, noting they will do everything they can to get voters ready for the election.

Attaway insisted Ohio leaders ensure that “every vote matters” this November.

Kalesha Scott of the Ohio Student Association noted the challenges that college students had with the mail-only primary election this past spring. She called on LaRose and others to make sure college students who may be studying from home this fall are not disenfranchised. 

How might these advocates convince LaRose to take action without the legislature getting involved?

Petee Talley with the Ohio Coalition on Black Civic Participation said supporters need to emphasize these are not partisan issues. Online ballot applications would benefit all voters, as would prepaid postage.

“Voting shouldn’t cost,” Talley said about the postage issue. “It shouldn’t cost.”

Cash said “the power is in the narrative” in wanting to improve voting access.

Of LaRose, the reverend said: “You have the power, you have the authority, and you have the narrative.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.