Have a question or issue at the polls during Ohio’s special election? Look for the helpers.
Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
The August special election takes place Tuesday to decide whether or not it will be harder to amend the Ohio Constitution. For voters, there are volunteers, from clergy and social workers to election protection advocates at the polls to answer questions or report issues.
“One of the things we know is that there are likely to be challenges on Election Day, with just logistics alone,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of voting advocacy group Common Cause Ohio.
This special election has had its share of confusion, with lawmakers acting not only to reinstate an August election, but also to change the dates of early voting and the documentation voters can use as identification at the polls.
Turcer said she was aware of voters who came to the Franklin County Board of Elections on Monday, unaware that the Ohio Republicans eliminated early voting the day before the primary date.
“We also know there’s been a consolidation of polling locations,” Turcer said. “So there are thousands of voters whose polling locations have moved.”
While there should be signage and other information to help voters at polling places, there are also volunteer teams specifically placed at voting locations to help voters known as “election protection.”
A coalition of voters rights groups, including the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and Common Cause, have banned together to bring “election protection ambassadors” to the locations to make sure voters are ready to vote.
“Poll monitors can explain how provisional voting works, they can give basic information,” but also if there’s anything complicated, they can call the (election protection) hotline themselves,” Turcer said. That hotline is at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).
Citizens have, in the past, questioned the presence of partisan operatives handing out literature on one side or another of an issue.
“When folks go to their polling location, they shouldn’t be surprised by that,” Turcer said.
Ohio law allows marked “free speech zones” at the perimeter of a polling place, but they can’t be any closer than the clearly marked area.
With polarizing issues, such as abortion rights, at the heart of arguments for and against Issue 1, and the confusion around the logistics of this newest primary, election volunteers know emotions may run high.
“For ‘vote no’ folks, they’re focused on how this is a change that impacts voter rights and it is a change to how the constitution has operated for more than 110 years,” Turcer said. “For some of the ‘yes’ folks, this issue is associated with hot button issues. People can become overwhelmed and feisty.”
With that in mind, some of the coalition of workers out to help voters are active and retired clergy members, along with social workers, who will be on call in case any issues arise.
The Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, has worked as a peacekeeper since 2020 and has helped voters work through incidents of intimidation at ballot boxes and shouting matches in parking lots on Election Day.
“We do know that when there are long lines at the polls, or when people are hot and bothered and upset … anxiety can rise, and sometimes we’re not at our best,” Van Becelaere told the OCJ.
Volunteer peacekeepers, dressed in clergy garb or with clear identification, use their “pastoral care skills” or social work knowledge along with their training in voting procedures to help keep polling places calm.
“You can walk with somebody, you can talk with somebody, you can distract them from the nasty language if there are hecklers,” said Van Becelaere.
Peacekeepers are even trained to help in the event of an active shooter.
Currently, 31 peacekeepers are on tap for Tuesday’s election across the state, with more than 70 other previously trained volunteers on call in case they’re needed.
The group struggled to find more volunteers, because they met some of the same challenges opponents to the August primary gave when the legislature was deciding whether to implement it.
“August is terrible because that’s when clergy go on vacation and aren’t available,” Van Becelaere said.
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