The 2020 presidential election stands to be one of the most complex and highly anticipated U.S. elections in recent history, primarily because the pandemic has made the administration of elections very difficult (not to mention the contentious race between candidates). State officials have been scrambling to find an effective, accessible and safe means of administering the elections when assembling in large groups and sharing common spaces, surfaces and resources is a public health concern.

In April, the Wisconsin primary election made headlines because of its decision to proceed with in-person elections as COVID-19 continued spreading. Although studies on potential spikes in case numbers related to the decision came to ambiguous conclusions, the sight of thousands of people flooding the polls in crowded lines was concerning for public health experts, who have continually urged state officials to seek alternate, safer means to maintain political processes. Furthermore, delays and long lines disproportionately impacted polling places in predominantly Black neighborhoods in places like Milwaukee. 

The New York Times noted that the Wisconsin primary brought about “national scorn,” but commended Ohio—a state whose primary was also administered soon after the arrival of the pandemic in early March—for having relatively few hiccups. Although Ohio took into account suggested mechanisms for managing the national health crisis, however, its policies were not completely unproblematic.

How Did Ohio Deal With its Primary Elections?

By March, the COVID-19 pandemic had already made a rapid and disconcerting landing in Ohio, and the state’s primary elections were at stake. While many states fumbled through elections or postponed indefinitely, Ohio’s efforts garnered national praise (as did its early pandemic response under Governor Mike DeWine and Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton). 

The Ohio primaries were meant to take place on March 17, but on March 16, a case was filed in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court, proposing to delay Ohio’s primary elections until June 2nd. The plaintiffs’ motion was denied, but Dr. Acton ordered all polls to be shut down the next day. The state then switched to a completely mail-in ballot system and extended the voting period until the end of April.

With a quick timetable and a cumbersome and lengthy process, only 23% of Ohioans voted in the 2020 primaries. In 2016 turnout was larger for both parties, with around 43% of those eligible voting in the primaries. (Although voter turnout may also have been influenced by the fact that an incumbent was running and Joe Biden had already amassed a sizable lead by early March.)

At the same time, Ohio has seen a consistently declining turnout across election type for many years, so the low turnout may not be completely contingent on the pandemic. Nevertheless, despite the downward trend, election officials have persevered in getting as many people out to vote as possible, particularly in today’s more limiting environment. 

According to Lucas County Board of Elections Deputy Director Timothy Monaco, Lucas County was able to efficiently switch over to “mail-in only” because the county prints ballots on demand. Election officials did not have to request a surplus of ballots at the last minute, and were able to more easily distribute the ballots. 

In Lucas County and the rest of Ohio, however, unforeseen problems inevitably arose. Using a mail-in only system proved a hassle for both voters and election officials. The timeline for voting was strict and voters had to print and mail requests for ballots, receive the ballots in the mail and postmark them by the appropriate date.

The ordinary complexities of having voters receive, complete and return ballots independently were compounded by the lack of open and operating businesses and resources. For example, the closing of libraries and other facilities limited access to printers, which are necessary for mailing in an absentee ballot request. In cases where a voter did not have access to a printer, they would call the election office, request to be mailed an application and then have to mail it back. 

Furthermore, the process of voting by mail was something that many voters were unfamiliar with. Monaco explained that some made several mistakes in their forms, leading to back-and-forth phone calls between voters and the election officials and many ballots not being counted in the final election.

Ohio’s Approach to the Nov. 3 General Election

State leaders and political actors have looked to the 2020 primaries to determine how to effectively proceed with the November election, with public debate and legal battles shaping how Ohioans are able to vote.

On July 31, the ACLU chapter of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the 2020 Ohio primary contributed to widespread voter suppression. Specifically, it targeted the process of matching signatures. The ACLU contended that signature matching is notoriously inaccurate and requires “controlled conditions and significant, rigorous training” to be performed, meaning that election officials could be prone to rejecting signatures unfairly, which can disproportionately affect minority populations.

That same day, the Democratic Party of Ohio filed a lawsuit advocating for an online registration process under the belief that an online application would streamline the voting process and minimize the inefficiencies of physical mail.

Republicans criticized both lawsuits, asserting that matching signatures is necessary to minimize voter fraud, and that an online registration process would “make it possible for anyone to request a ballot for another voter without their knowledge,” Evan Machan, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said.

In the end, Ohio officials formulated a hybrid voting model for the November election, combining opportunities for early and regular in-person voting, online registration and mail-in ballots in the hopes of minimizing crowds and limiting the threat to public safety on election day. Large numbers of Ohioans are voting via mail-in ballots, which can be either mailed in or delivered to a secure drop-box established by one of Ohio’s election boards. 

Thus far, the system seems to be working well, as early voting began on Tuesday, October 6 and drew significant crowds and engagement. At the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, crowds began to gather over two hours before the polls opened. 193,021 Ohioans came out in person for the first week of early voting and there have been 2,470,268 requests for absentee ballots throughout the state, nearly double the amount requested at this point in the 2016 election cycle.

As of October 13, 8,080,050 Ohioans had registered to vote, with 1.6 million registered as Democrats, 1.9 million registered as Republicans, and all remaining voters nonpartisan. This represents the largest turnout in voter registration in the state since 2008. 

Looking Ahead

While 2020 may be an exceptional year when it comes to administering elections and voting, it has certainly revealed weaknesses and inefficiencies in our democratic processes—leaving a lot to learn. The unprecedented and prolonged challenges of social distancing and continually disinfecting surfaces and spaces make the operation of polling places particularly difficult in a time of crisis where Americans’ ability to vote is incredibly important. Mail-in ballots bring up their own problems, especially when some Americans’ trust in them is wavering and the United States Postal Service is experiencing delays

As each state struggles with its own unique set of circumstances in the face of the pandemic, the election and voting process is playing out in a variety of ways across the country. While Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, and California are automatically mailing ballots to all eligible voters, states such as Idaho, Florida, Kansas and several others have made no changes to their voting process in light of COVID-19. Ohio falls somewhere in the middle, with several adaptations being made to promote public safety, the most prominent being the introduction of drop boxes for mail-in ballots. 

With just a couple weeks remaining until election day, the voting process has begun in most states, whether through mail-in ballots, early voting or both. The 2020 election process will be one of the most unique and diverse as each state faces this new set of challenges in its own way. As such, it is particularly important that all voters are proactive and engaged in learning about their local communities’ voting procedures and following them in order to participate in the upcoming election. If we aim to preserve our democracy, we must ensure all Americans can vote—and do so safely.

Elections are at the core of American society: they determine the trajectory of social issues, create accountability for political representatives and set the foundation for generations of change. Because of this, access to the ballot box has been a long-contested issue that remains the subject of intense scrutiny. The Voting Project is a Midstory series dedicated to understanding and unearthing the history, traditions and future of electoral politics in Ohio and the Midwest.


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