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What Went Down In Ohio’s Primary

The past month has given us a glimpse of how democracy functions — or doesn’t — in the age of the coronavirus, as the first handful of states have executed rescheduled and retooled primary elections. Wisconsin ultimately did not move its April 7 election, leading to long lines that may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus and leaving the state unprepared to handle a flood of absentee-ballot requests. On the other hand, Alaska and Wyoming canceled all in-person voting in their Democratic presidential primaries and mailed a ballot to every eligible voter.

But Ohio, which wrapped up its monthslong voting period last Tuesday, was a bit of a unique situation. The primary was originally scheduled for March 17, and for weeks leading up to that date, early and absentee voting proceeded as normal. But the day before, confusion reigned as Gov. Mike DeWine said the election should be postponed but encountered resistance in the courts. Ultimately, DeWine’s side won out, and polling places did not open as scheduled (although ballots already cast early or absentee remained valid).

Election officials initially said the new primary date would be June 2, but in late March the legislature stepped in and laid down new rules for an almost entirely absentee ballot election ending on April 28. Like Alaska and Wyoming, the state eliminated virtually all polling places; only voters with a legal need (i.e., people with disabilities or without mailing addresses) were allowed to vote in person. But like Wisconsin, Ohio did little to make it easier for people to vote by mail. Voters were simply sent postcards that contained instructions on how to apply for an absentee ballot.

The unprecedented set-up was Ohio’s way of avoiding both the public health and voting problems that plagued Wisconsin, but now that the primary is over, it looks as if the state was only partially successful. In the end, Ohio faced some of the same problems Wisconsin did, albeit not on the same scale. However, Ohio also experienced far lower turnout than Wisconsin, which likely reduced the strain on the state’s election infrastructure and made it easier to pull off a smooth election.

First, as in Wisconsin, election officials in Ohio had to work overtime to process an abnormally high number of absentee-ballot requests. A total of 1,975,806 Ohioans requested absentee ballots (for comparison, Ohio issued only 477,844 absentee ballots in the much higher-turnout 2016 presidential primary). And the week before the election, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose warned that absentee ballots and ballot applications were taking more than a week to arrive in some cases due to delays with the U.S. Postal Service. Because Ohio’s process required at least two waves of mailings in order to vote (voters must send in their absentee-ballot applications, and election offices must send back the ballots), advocates and elected officials worried that this could disenfranchise voters who didn’t request their ballots weeks in advance.1

However, the magnitude of the problem isn’t totally clear, as in the last days of the election, the USPS implemented measures to speed up ballot delivery. But several Ohio voters told FiveThirtyEight they experienced delays in getting their ballots. Aaron Wenzel of Franklin County said that his ballot arrived eight or nine days after he requested it; fellow Franklin County voter Dustin White said his took about 12 days. Others were annoyed by the fact that it wasn’t possible to request a ballot online. Tristan Akers, a law student at the Ohio State University, told us that because he does not have a printer, he had to write all the relevant information on a piece of paper and mail it in. Despite these difficulties, however, everyone we talked to who requested a ballot eventually got it in time to vote. “It was slower but otherwise no real difference than the past,” Seth Cutler, a voter in Lake County, wrote in an email.

We know from other news reports that other Ohioans were not so lucky. It’s impossible to know how many, but the number of Ohioans who did not receive a ballot is likely several thousand. In Butler, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties alone, about 4,500 people who requested a ballot were not sent one because their request lacked essential information.

Any Ohio voter who requested an absentee ballot by the deadline but did not receive it was allowed to cast a provisional ballot in person on April 28. But as was the case in Wisconsin, voters in this situation were forced to choose between risking their health and giving up their right to vote. Unlike in Wisconsin, however, there were no widespread reports of lines and overcrowding at the few in-person voting sites that were open. And in one of the few jurisdictions that did have a line — Hamilton County — the wait was 15 minutes, as opposed to up to three hours in Wisconsin.

Indeed, low overall turnout likely saved Ohio from experiencing crowds and absentee-ballot requests at volumes that would have overwhelmed the system. Through April 28, 1,760,988 ballots had been counted, representing 20 percent of Ohio’s voting eligible population.2 That means that Ohio election officials had it easy compared with Wisconsin, where VEP turnout in last month’s primary was 36 percent.

But by Ohio standards, that turnout was somewhere between disappointing and dismal — more fitting for a midterm primary election than a presidential primary.

Ohio’s 2020 turnout was among the lowest in recent history

Total ballots cast as a share of the voting eligible population in Ohio statewide elections since 2008

Year Type of Election Turnout
2008 Presidential general 68%
2012 Presidential general 65
2016 Presidential general 64
2018 Midterm general 51
2010 Midterm general 46
2008 Presidential primary 42
2011 Off-year 42
2009 Off-year 39
2016 Presidential primary 38
2015 Off-year 37
2014 Midterm general 36
2017 Off-year 27
2013 Off-year 24
2012 Presidential primary 23
2010 Midterm primary 21
2020 Presidential primary* 20
2018 Midterm primary 19
2014 Midterm primary 15

*Data is preliminary.

The voting eligible population in odd years was estimated as the midpoint of the VEPs from the year before and the year after.

Sources: Ohio Secretary of State, United States Elections Project

At first glance, it’s easy to think that the closure of election day polling places, and the state’s failure to automatically mail voters absentee ballots (or at least applications) to compensate, caused turnout to plummet. After all, 42 percent of eligible Ohioans voted in the 2008 presidential primary, and 38 percent voted in the 2016 presidential primary. However, both of those years had competitive presidential primaries on both the Democratic and Republican sides. This year barely had one: The Republican race was a foregone conclusion, and former Vice President Joe Biden was the presumptive Democratic nominee by the time voting ended (although for most of the voting period, the race was still contested).

Indeed, turnout in the Democratic primary went from 14 percent in 2016 to 10 percent in 2020, but turnout in the Republican primary went from 23 percent to 8 percent, suggesting that much of the decrease is due to the lack of a competitive election.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what turnout “should” have been, if there were no pandemic and Ohio had been able to vote as usual. The closest comparison might be 2012, when only the Republican race was competitive, and overall VEP turnout was 23 percent — almost as meager as 2020’s figure.

However, as the table above demonstrates, turnout almost certainly won’t be meager in November; VEP turnout in Ohio has been between 64 and 68 percent in the last three presidential general elections. That means Ohio could face some real problems if the coronavirus remains a pressing concern and the state hasn’t worked out the kinks in its vote-by-mail process. (Debate has already begun on changes to the state’s procedures.) Remember, the fact that Ohio’s primary produced fewer horror stories than Wisconsin’s does not mean that it is any more prepared to hold the general election amid a pandemic.



Why switching to vote-by-mail is tougher than it seems | FiveThirtyEight

Footnotes

  1. Anticipating this, voting-rights groups even filed a lawsuit in late March to force the state to send ballots to voters directly and/or push the election even further back, but it failed.

  2. Even if every single one of the outstanding absentee ballots is returned and every provisional ballot is counted — which is highly unlikely — VEP turnout would rise to only 23 percent.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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