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Early voting booms as first ballots are cast in Ohio

“We’re seeing more than normal. Exponentially more,” Julie Stahl, elections board director in Wayne County, told The Times-Gazette. She called the nearly 300 people who voted by noon “unprecedented.”
Voting 09222020
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The Associated Press

Long lines developed early and stayed that way at election boards as early voting began Tuesday in Ohio, which again was in play as a potential swing state, but this time in a pandemic-altered election.

Mahoning County Board of Elections accommodated 790 early voters on Tuesday, said Thomas McCabe, deputy elections director. He's yet to look back at 2016's early voter turnout, but he suspects it's much higher this year. The county's Oak Hill Avenue elections offices had as many as 20 voters at once inside, he said.

Aside from pandemic precautions like wiping down touch screens after each use, taking voters' temperatures at the door — none were turned away for fever Tuesday, he said — "I can't really say it went any different than two years ago or four years ago," McCabe said.

Bryce Miner, Columbiana County deputy elections director, said more than a dozen people were lined up outside the county elections offices along Dickey Drive in Lisbon before it opened Tuesday. Traffic was steady when he spoke with Mahoning Matters midday.

This year is Miner's first presidential election at the office, but he said the number of early and absentee voters looks to be higher than in 2016.

"There has not been a long wait. We've been getting voters in and out as quickly as possible," he said. "It's going to be a high turnout for early and absentee voting, as expected. Things are going as we planned so far."

Though both McCabe and Miner both noted lines on early voting's first day, McCabe reminded voters already in line by the time polls close — at 5 p.m. through next week and at 6 p.m. the week after that — should stay in line to cast their ballot. Mahoning County's elections office puts a sheriff's deputy at the end of the line when polls close, McCabe said.

McCabe said his office is considering installing a tent to shelter voters waiting outside "as the weather turns."

If there is an upside to pandemic voting, the increased enthusiasm for early and absentee voting will spread out some of the 120,000 ballots McCabe expects to be cast in this election. In any other year, a much bigger majority would be cast on Election Day, he said.

In 2016, more than a third of the county's 117,000 ballots were cast early, he said.

"It really does help with the congestion and the issues that can arise on Election Day with long lines at 7:30 at night. It lessens the burden on our poll workers," McCabe said.

Learn more about early and absentee voting in Mahoning Matters' 2020 general election guides


See the candidates and issues on your ballot, find your early voting location and learn how to request your absentee ballot in our voting guides for Mahoning County, Trumbull County and Columbiana County.

Drop off your vote

On Monday, Ohio’s secretary of state adjusted his one-box-per-county restriction to approve counties collecting absentee ballots both at their buildings and at locations outside, an update to an order that landed him in both state and federal court.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose called his revised order a “clarification” in a case that has highlighted the interest in access to ballot drop boxes amid coronavirus concerns, cuts at the U.S. Postal Service and Trump’s assertions that mail-in voting is rigged.

LaRose said his order always allowed Ohio’s 88 county boards to collect ballots at various locations around their own property — though that is not how Democrats and voting rights groups who sued had interpreted it. It is often the more urban, Democrat-heavy counties that lean toward drop boxes.

The new directive requires Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections to accept absentee ballots around the clock at secure receptacles at their central offices and also clears them to set up “convenient drive-through ballot drop offs” outside.

Mahoning County had received 48,089 valid absentee ballot requests as of Tuesday, and elections workers had yet to sort through another three trays of mail that arrived that day, McCabe said. He expects the office will easily break 52,000 requests for this general election and that it could have close to half its total ballots in hand before Election Day.

Four years ago, there were about 28,000 requests for absentee ballots, he said.

Mahoning County had sussed out another 7,000 duplicate — or triplicate — ballot requests by Tuesday evening. As many as 500 more have been held up for personal verification, due to discrepancies. Most commonly, voters didn't include their signature or their birth date, or their addresses didn't match their voter registration.

Columbiana County has received about 13,000 valid absentee ballot requests so far, Miner said. Another about 2,000 were rejected largely because they were duplicate requests. The county elections board has been making contact with each individual voter to resolve other discrepancies, he said.

"I think boards are caught up trying to contact these voters by phone or email," McCabe said. "The ones we can't get, we've sent a letter out."

Elsewhere in Ohio

Hundreds waited outside board offices in Hamilton, Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, which serve voters from the three biggest cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, respectively. Several elections officials statewide noted unusually heavy turnout for the first day of early voting.

In Columbus, the line snaked about a quarter-mile along the front and around the back of the Franklin County Board of Elections on the city's north side.

Mike Master, 64, a Columbus pipefitter, said he planned to vote for President Donald Trump — “twice if I could.”

“He improved the economy and it’s obvious,” Master said. He acknowledged that the president can be offensive, but added: "He’s a good leader.”

Also in Columbus, college student George Theofylaktos, 21, of Columbus, said he was apolitical until he got a notification inviting him to a Black Lives Matter rally earlier this year. He carried a wooden bullet with which he said he was shot by Columbus police.

“I got shot by Columbus police four times so, as you can imagine, if I don’t vote, what am I doing out here?” said Theofylaktos, who planned to vote for Democrat Joe Biden.

In Cleveland, Sharm Starks, 36, and Warren Clark, 42, stood in line with Clark’s 3-year-old daughter, Lola, joined by hundreds of others. Clark, of Cleveland Heights and a supporter of Biden, said he decided to vote early because he feared voter suppression and possible intimidation by poll watchers on Nov. 3.

Other communities big and small also saw turnout higher than years past.

“We’re seeing more than normal. Exponentially more,” Julie Stahl, elections board director in Wayne County, told The Times-Gazette. She called the nearly 300 people who voted by noon “unprecedented.” In nearby Holmes County, the heart of Ohio Amish country, nearly 90 people voted during the morning.

Voting in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, was taking place in a voting center that more than doubles the space of the usual voting center in the same complex in suburban Norwood. Disinfectants and masks will be offered to voters, and 6-feet spacing is marked for lines.

Most voters wore masks and bundled up against chilly morning temperatures.

“It is my duty as an American to vote," said Candice Matthews-Brackeen, a Biden supporter who was first in line in Hamilton County. A tech investor, the 42-year-old Matthews-Brackeen said women's issues and marriage equality were among her priorities. She criticized Trump for not helping families during his time in office.

Sherry Poland, county elections director, said authorities feel “well-prepared” and expect strong turnout in a hotly contested presidential election year with Trump trying to carry Ohio again and to win a second term against Biden. But they can't be certain about what to expect.

“We don't have a history of conducting a presidential election during a pandemic,” she told reporters Monday. This will be the fifth presidential election Poland has worked.

Nearby, at a rally at a Trump-Pence field office near the Hamilton County voting center in Norwood, Trump supporter Tuesday Hanavan, 47, said she was impressed with everything the president has done. “He’s kept all his promises. He’s put America first.”

After Trump's decisive 8-point victory in Ohio in 2016, polling indicates the state will again be in play. No president has been elected without carrying Ohio since 1960.

Officials are hoping Ohioans will take advantage of early voting between now and the Nov. 3 Election Day. Besides weekday voting, early voting will be available the last two weekends before the election. Officials also urge those voting by mail not to wait until the final days, risking their vote arriving on time to get counted if the Postal Service is running slowly.

“Please don't wait until the last minute,” said Gwen McFarlin, an elections board member and chairwoman of the county's Democratic Party. “We just don't know.”

— Mahoning Matters reporter Justin Dennis and Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report.

— Mahoning Matters has posted voting details in its election guides.