Young Ohioans excited to cast first presidential ballot in unusual pandemic year

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

Since he was a little kid, Benjamin Mudrak has looked forward to casting his first ballot for president. 

He envisioned a trip to the polling place on Election Day, casting his ballot and getting the “I Voted” sticker at the end. 

After many years of waiting, the pandemic changed Mudrak’s plans. The Kent State University student lives at home with his parents and fears a trip to the voting booth might bring the virus back with him. 

Though disappointed, Mudrak requested an absentee ballot and plans to vote by mail.

2020 is an unusual election season for many young Ohio voters who are casting their first-ever General Election presidential ballots amid a pandemic. 

The Ohio Capital Journal heard from a half-dozen voters living throughout the state who have spent time in recent weeks researching how they will vote — not just picking candidates, but determining the safest way to vote given their unique circumstances. 

Evan Davies, living in Franklin County, said he first planned to cast a vote through the mail. All the discussion about voting controversies and legal challenges made Davies change his mind, and now he intends to vote early at the board of elections office.

It’s been quite a different first presidential election season than Davies anticipated.

“It feels like I’m having to learn how to navigate the political process while also watching that process break down at the same time,” Davies told the Capital Journal.

In 2016, exit polls showed that 18-to-24-year-olds made up 10% of the total electorate in Ohio. While first-time voters may not make up a large chunk of the voting public, every ballot counts in a state that appears to be a toss-up headed to November. 

Omar Elghazawi in Butler County has also decided against voting on Election Day. 

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.

“I wanted to minimize the risk of getting COVID because I live with a friend who is immunocompromised,” said the Miami University student, who for similar reasons is taking classes online this semester.

Elghazawi too looked forward to going to the polls, but concedes that requesting an absentee ballot from the Butler County Board of Elections “is probably the safest option.”

Others plan to vote absentee as well, but harbor concerns about the U.S. Postal Service and plan to utilize the ballot drop box option.

Leah Leidy in Medina County and Emily Green in Fairfield County are among those who fear a delay in the postal service preventing their ballots from being counted. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has said voting by mail is reliable so long as citizens meet the deadline of getting their ballots postmarked by Nov. 2, the day before the election.

Some still are most comfortable with using the drop box. 

“I feel it is best to drop it off myself to avoid any worry of my ballot making it on time,” Leidy said.

Leidy got some help learning about Ohio’s voting system form her parents, and has tried to pass along that knowledge to her friends. She described helping some friends with registering to vote and requesting ballots for the fall. 

Nazar Tkachenko, like some others quoted in this article, is old enough to have cast ballots last year and in the spring primary. The Case Western Reserve University student is prepared to cast his first vote for president, and benefits from having earlier experience with requesting an absentee ballot.

He plans to drop the ballot off at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections a few miles west of campus — “just in case there’s any USPS issues.”

“I’m excited but yeah, it absolutely feels weird,” Tkachenko said of voting this year. “I’m making sure all my friends are registered. For the most part, it seems like my age group is ready and informed with voting this election.”

Kathryn Oleksa has the unusual distinction of having worked the polls before having cast her first vote for president. She turned 18 a month before the 2019 general election and served as a poll worker in her hometown of Lakewood.

Oleksa is now an Ashbrook Scholar for history majors at Ashland University and is excited about this year’s election — held as women in America have celebrated 100 years of gaining a national right to vote.

“I’m really big into history,” she said. “There is some pride (in voting) when I think of all the fighting we had to do to get the right to vote … it feels like it carries a lot of historical pride, especially for me as a young lady.”

In Ohio, citizens as young as 17 are eligible to serve as poll workers. Oleksa, who said she is considering a late sign-up to serve again this year, encouraged others her age to work on Election Day if they are comfortable given the pandemic.

It’s a “good opportunity,” Oleksa said, noting it “looks nice on a resume” and pays well for a day of work.

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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.