CINCINNATI – The nation will look to Ohio on Tuesday on how to vote during this pandemic.
Or how not to.
Ohio will hold an election like no other in the state's 217-year history, an almost all-mail primary.
The novel coronavirus pandemic halted Ohio's March 17 primary a month after early voting had started and thousands of votes were cast. The primary was extended to April 28, with virtually all voters required to mail in their votes.
"We're going to see a lot of states try this out in April, May and June," said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. "They're going to make a lot of mistakes. But they'll learn a lot by November."
Slow mail delivery in Ohio also has elections officials concerned voters won't receive ballots on time.
Days before the primary, it wasn't clear whether help would come. And it could lead to long lines as voters who applied for ballots but didn't receive them cast provisional ballots – not at their polling places, which are closed, but at county boards of elections, which are supposed to be open only a small group of voters.
Some voters told The Enquirer they've applied multiple times for ballots they haven't received. Others received their ballots within five days of submitting an application and said they liked the convenience and safety of voting in their homes.
Like to or not, more people will likely be voting by mail in November across the country.
Nationwide, about a quarter of the voters cast their ballot by mail in 2018, according to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission's 2018 survey.
For the general election, more than half of American voters could cast their ballots by mail, many election experts told The Enquirer. People will want to avoid polls, especially if the novel coronavirus surges in the fall, as some experts expect.
"I think it's reasonable to expect really big increases in vote by mail," said Lawrence Norden, director of the election reform program for the law and public policy think tank the Brennan Center for Justice.
There's no way to know for sure, he said. That's where Ohio comes in.
Ohio took the lead
Timing has placed Ohio at the center of this drama.
The novel coronavirus pandemic struck right as Ohio prepared for its March 17 primary. Hours before polls were set to open, Gov. Mike DeWine and director of Public Health Amy Acton decided the safest option to prevent the spread of the disease was to postpone the election and close down polls.
The Ohio General Assembly moved the primary day to April 28. Ohio would end up being the first of many other states to postpone its election and change the rules.
As the pandemic has worsened, 21 other states have postponed their primaries as of April 23, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list is growing. And many are debating going all-mail.
These states hope to avoid the debacle like the one seen in Wisconsin April 7. The Supreme Court blocked the governor's attempt there to postpone the primary.
Long lines wrapped around the handful of polling locations open. A backlog of applications caused many voters to not receive ballots in time, even those who applied two weeks in advance.
Why some are concerned
Conducting an election through the Postal Service isn't without pitfalls.
Just days before the election, Secretary of State Frank LaRose wrote a letter to Ohio's congressional delegation saying he was worried voters won't get ballots in time.
First-class mail that usually takes one to three days is, in some parts of the state, taking seven to nine days, LaRose wrote.
"As you can imagine, these delays mean it is very possible that many Ohioans who have requested a ballot may not receive it in time," LaRose wrote.
He's asked for additional postal service staff to handle the ballots promptly.
Voters who applied for ballots by the deadline of noon on April 25 but didn't get one can ask for a provisional ballot at their local board of elections on Tuesday. Election officials warned that a provisional ballot is not a backstop for those who didn't meet the deadline.
Provisional voting should be a rare exception, LaRose said in a tweet.
"Voters should not make it their plan to show up Tuesday unless they are homeless or disabled," LaRose tweeted.
But, again, that should be the rare exception. Voters should not make it their plan to show up Tuesday unless they are homeless or disabled as provided for in law.
— Frank LaRose (@FrankLaRose) April 24, 2020
So far, LaRose's office has not issued guidance on how each board of elections should count the provisional ballots.
Boards of elections around the state were preparing for long lines.
They are working with health officials and county prosecutors “to create as safe an environment as possible for voters and election officials,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.
Boards are considering or already have plans to distance voters, take their temperatures, create outdoor voting environments and use personal protective equipment to limit the spread of the virus, he said.
Voters with higher temperatures could be moved to another line and vote in a different area, Ockerman said.
“We’re preparing people for the fact that we’re going to have lines,” said Ed Leonard, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections. “I think every board of elections in the state is going to have a line of people waiting to cast their ballot.”
Ohio is no stranger to by-mail votes. It is one of 34 states that allows for some form of early, no-excuse voting, according to the NCSL.
But most Ohioans vote in person on Election Day and not by mail.
In the 2016 primary, only 14% of the 3.3 million ballots cast in of ballots in the primary were absentee ballots.
Turnout will almost certainly be down in Ohio. A week before the election, 1.6 million Ohioans had requested ballots and 975,000 had actually sent their ballots in.
The number of ballots cast so far is less than one-third of the 3.3 million cast in the previous presidential primary in Ohio.
The five states who do all-mail absentee voting – Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii – had years to make the transition, said Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.
"It is one thing to do in two years and get ready for it," Stein said.
Ohioans had about a month to adjust.
Voting rights groups and election experts point out that voting by mail offers more opportunities for things to go wrong.
Ohio's process requires voters to send in an absentee ballot request, to wait for a ballot to be mailed back to them with a postage-paid envelope, to fill the ballot out, and to send it back to the board of elections.
Ballots can get lost in the mail. Voters can fill out ballots wrong, putting dates on the wrong line or, since this is a primary, not specifying whether they want a Democratic or Republican ballot.
And voting remotely means mistakes can’t be corrected immediately but take time.
"In Ohio, there's a chance you'll see a larger number of mistakes filling out envelopes, signing in the wrong place," Norden said.
Don't send your ballot to West Virginia
There have been a few glitches in Ohio already.
In Franklin and Licking counties, 39 ballot applications went to residents with return addresses on the envelope for a rural electric co-op in West Virginia. The co-op was a client of the same printer contracted by the Secretary of State, according to an official with the Secretary of State.
The West Virginia co-op officials told the state it received about 20 ballot applications and sent the applications back to Ohio. Officials with the Secretary of State's office said they've contacted the affected voters and are getting ballots to them.
In Greene County, letters went out to some voters giving the wrong deadline for ballots to be postmarked.
Some Ohio voters are still waiting for a ballot days before the election.
'It is rather aggravating'
Hannah Reinhardt hopes she can vote in her first presidential primary. The 19-year-old University of Cincinnati student just needs a ballot.
She said she's applied three times since early March when she was living in Dallas for an internship at an interior design firm. She's living back at home in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati.
As of Friday, April 24, still no ballot.
"I am a college student, and there is a lot going on in our world right now," Reinhardt said. "This is on the to-do list of things. It's taking a lot of time to get this done, and it is rather aggravating."
In the meantime, her favorite candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has dropped out. But she still excited to participate in her first presidential primary.
Last year, in her first election, she voted on Election Day in person. There was one glitch then, too.
"They ran out of 'I voted' stickers," Reinhardt said.
'People thought the vote was over'
Given Ohio's short timeframe, it was not just a matter of getting the ballots to people. It's also a matter of letting people know they should vote.
Candidates are saying many voters don't even know the election is April 28. Some people still think it's June 2, which was the initial date DeWine wanted to push the primary back to.
Churches, candidates and other community groups in Ohio have scrambled to pass out ballot applications. A group of seven churches, most in predominantly black neighborhoods around Cincinnati, for several weekends in April passed out ballot applications.
Minister Bomani Tyehimba realized his church had to do something about the election after he started asking his congregation at Corinthian Baptist Church in Cincinnati's neighborhood of Bond Hill if they've requested their ballots.
"There was confusion," Tyehimba told The Enquirer. "I was doing informal polling, asking people 'Hey, have you voted, have you requested your absentee ballot?' People thought the vote was over."
His church over two Saturdays in April passed out about 300 ballot applications.
Advocates want more room for error
There are too many steps in Ohio's by-mail vote process that can go wrong, said Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters.
In particular, Ohio's voters don't automatically get a ballot. They have to send in an application for a ballot.
If the pandemic in November makes in-person voting not possible, voting rights groups, such as the Ohio LWV, have asked the state to eliminate the extra step of having to apply for a ballot. Instead, they want the state to send ballots directly to voters.
Otherwise, mail delays could keep people from getting their ballot on time.
"It is likely that a person, through no fault of their own, doesn't get their ballot on time," Miller said. "Add to that mistakes are common. There is no room for human error at all."
Mail-in vote gaining in popularity
Despite the potential for glitches, it's better than risking infection and going to the polls for many voters.
More than two-thirds of Americans want the ability to vote by mail, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week found.
And many voters in Ohio who have never voted by mail before have liked the process.
Normally, Reneè Ross, 69, of Silverton votes early in person at the board of elections just north of Cincinnati in Norwood. For whatever reason, she said she didn't get out this year, and planned on voting Election Day. Then Election Day was canceled.
She filled out a ballot application at her church, Corinthian Baptist Church, a little more than a week before the election. She also picked up some applications for some friends who couldn't make it.
She received a ballot within a few days and found the process very easy.
"I think we would get more voter participation," Ross said of mail-in voting. "All you had to do was drive up to the church, they gave you a clipboard and you filled out the application. I took a few with me for my friends to fill out."
Fraud is rare
President Donald Trump has criticized mail voting as ripe for fraud. Ohio's Republican Secretary of State begs to differ.
In an online town hall a week before the election, Secretary of State Frank LaRose fielded several questions from the public asking whether it's secure.
Voters can track their ballots online to see where it is in the process.
"Let me tell you, the way we run it in Ohio is secure," LaRose said. "Election fraud is extremely rare."
The state's plea for help
LaRose and others in his office struck an optimistic tone earlier in the week about their ability to pull off the election. But in his letter to local congressional members, he made it clear Ohio needs help to do it.
He asked the local congressional delegation for the federal government to:
Assign additional staff to postal service offices and encourage extra hours, including on Sunday
Immediately identify delivery standard shortcomings.
Conduct a thorough search at postal service facilities for unprocessed mail.
Ensure each post office promptly provides mail to the county boards of elections on Saturday and, "upon receipt of the absentee ballots which are being mailed to the voters, have the necessary resources on hand to provide for prompt delivery of mail to voters."
"I can certainly appreciate the multitude and complexity of the problems our nation is currently working to overcome," LaRose wrote. "However, we must never give an inch in our fight for that most sacred of rights – the right to vote."
Contributing: Rick Rouan, Columbus Dispatch
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio Primary: Coronavirus caused Ohio to go to an all-mail primary. Will it work?