Voting By Mail Has Never Been More Popular And More Controversial
Ohio voters who want to mail in their ballots might be wary when they learn about recent changes made by the U.S. Postal Service or when they read President Trump’s Twitter feed. But Ohio’s election system has some checks and balances that protect mail in voters.
After reports that sorting machines were being taken apart and mailboxes were being removed, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was called to a Congressional hearing. And he made this vow to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat of Arizona:
"Senator, I promise you, we are not making any more changes until after the election,” DeJoy said.
Recently, Dejoy sent a letter to elections leaders around the country, saying those changes, which were designed to save the agency money, could make it impossible to deliver ballots on time. All of this has raised questions with members of Congress who are now investigating DeJoy and recent actions at the postal service. That, coupled with President Trump's unfounded claims that mail in ballots could be a vehicle for Democrats to commit voter fraud, has made some voters question whether it is safe.
For more than a decade, Ohio voters have had several options for casting ballots. In the midst of this pandemic, many voters are using the mail-in ballot option. And that’s why changes at the US Postal Service have Democrats and Republicans both worried about what might happen with mail-in voting.
President Trump set off a firestorm with these comments to Fox Business recently about holding up funding for US Postal Service.
"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, in the meantime, they aren't getting there. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it,” Trump said.
He walked back those comments a few days later.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says voters shouldn’t worry. He got DeJoy's letter, and said there are many safeguards built into the state's system that protect voters who cast ballots by mail.
“In Ohio, it’s a great way to vote. You can track your ballot so you know it is safely received back at the board of elections,” LaRose said.
LaRose, a Republican, has been under fire from Democrats and some voter rights groups for not installing more ballot boxes where voters can put their completed ballots, circumventing the postal system all together. LaRose said he doesn’t have the legal authority to do that without legislative approval.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said he thinks LaRose could allow those boxes to be set up immediately, and the party has filed a lawsuit to decide that. And after that, the Phillip A. Randolph Institute, League of Women Voters, Ohio NAACP filed a separate suit over drop boxes as well. Pepper has taken his complaints a step further. He has also filed complaints with some county prosecutors, asking them to file felony charges against President Trump over his recent comments about mail-in voting.
“For Donald Trump to admit that his goal in what he is doing in the post office is to hurt the delivery of absentee ballots, he literally just admitted to breaking the law in the state of Ohio,” Pepper said.
An elections law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, Steve Huefner, said the election law Pepper says Trump is breaking is hard to prove at this point.
“It would be a hard case for a prosecutor to make at this point to show that President Trump and all of the statements he’s been making about problems with mail in voting and other things that he has said that relate to that to say that he was knowingly doing it to hinder the delivery of an absent voter’s ballot,” Huefner said.
None of the prosecutors in Ohio who were asked to take a look at Pepper’s complaint have filed charges at this point but at least 20 Democratic attorneys general throughout the country have.
But concerns about cost-cutting and other changes led Ohio’s Republican Attorney General Dave Yost to send a letter to Trump, asking him to avoid taking actions that affect this election.
“I’m concerned about this particular election year with the number of people who will want to vote absentee because of the COVID pandemic, it is critical that we have the capacity and the reliability of the postal service to process the already legally available absentee ballots,” Yost said.
To be clear, Yost is not accusing Trump of breaking any laws. Yost said he’s underscoring the importance of making sure nothing happens that undermines the integrity of mail in balloting.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor, works with the United States Election Project. It tracks historical voting patterns. McDonald says Republicans could actually be hurt more by mail changes and confusion. He looked at mail in ballots that were received too late to be counted in the most recent primaries. In the three big urban counties in Ohio, which are largely Democratic, just under 2% of the ballots arrived too late to be counted. Compare that with 66 rural Ohio counties which tend to be heavily Republican where 4.1% of the ballots were not counted – more than twice as many as in the urban counties. McDonald says rural counties tend to have fewer employees and depend on the larger counties for sorting.
“In a rural area, when you put your mail ballot into your mailbox, it doesn’t go to your local post office and get sorted there then sent back out to the local elections office. Instead your mail goes to a central processing facility in a large city then it gets routed back down to your local post office which then sends it to your election office. And so, there’s an extra trip there,” McDonald said.
The best advice from everyone on all sides – if you are going to vote by mail, request your ballot now. You have until October 5th to do that. Early in-person voting and mail-in balloting starts on October 6th. Voting officials say if you vote by mail, you should fill out your ballot when you receive it and send it back early. But if you have your mail-in ballot and it is close to Election Day, it might be a good idea to deposit it in a drop box at your local board of elections. Of course, you can also vote in person at your county board of elections four weeks leading up to the Election. And you can still cast your ballot at your designated precinct on Election Day, November 3rd.