Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Today, Senator Sandra R. Williams (Cleveland) and Senator Nickie J. Antonio (Lakewood) sent a letter to Ohio Secretary of State (SoS) Frank LaRose, detailing five improvements he could make to Ohio's voting system on his own. Right now.
As detailed in the letter, SoS LaRose has the power to take the following actions immediately and without Statehouse approval:
He can implement a system that allows Ohioans to request an absentee ballot online.
He can pay for return postage on paper request forms and absentee ballots.
He can establish multiple secure drop boxes for absentee ballots (there is currently only one secure ballot drop box per county).
He can run a paid voter education communications campaign targeted at historically marginalized groups to help Ohioans navigate the mail-in voting process.
He can implement Automatic Voter Registration administratively, using BMV records.
The full letter and citations are posted below.
Want to urge SoS LaRose to take these five actions?
EMAIL: FLaRose@OhioSoS.gov and/or firstname.lastname@example.org Office contact form: https://www.ohiosos.gov/secretary-office/contact-our-office/contact-us-agency/
Secretary of State LaRose,
As you know, the ongoing Coronavirus crisis means many Ohioans will not view in-person voting as an option this year. This is especially true for those who are older or immunocompromised. Therefore, many Ohio voters will likely be attempting to vote absentee for the first time this November.
As we saw during the Primary Election, Ohio’s current absentee voting system is in desperate need of improvement. Far too many Ohioans were unable to exercise their right to vote, due to the barriers created by our current process.
As Secretary of State, you are in a unique position to do something about it.
You have the power to strengthen Ohio’s voting procedures, allowing all eligible Ohioans to perform their patriotic duty at the ballot box this November.
We have been fighting to accomplish this goal through legislation with SB 323. Sadly, our colleagues in the supermajority failed to take action, then sent the legislature on Summer break and left Ohio voters hanging.
We would like to identify those actions that you could initiate right now, on your own, without action from the legislature. Where Ohio’s current General Assembly supermajority has failed to act, you have the authority, and truly the obligation, to step in.
We have examined current law and compiled the following list of five simple steps we believe you can take immediately, to ensure Ohioans’ rights are protected. Please let us know how we can be helpful in support of implementing any and all of these changes.
1.) You can allow Ohioans to request an absentee ballot online.
Currently, would-be Ohio voters are forced to send paper absentee ballot request forms through the mail. This makes the absentee voting process significantly longer and more complicated. Ohioans are also forced to provide their own postage, which adds a troubling financial barrier to voting.
You have the authority to create and run an online absentee ballot request system right now.(1,2)
In addition, during the 2020 Primary, you wisely informed Ohioans that, “No printer? No problem! You can make your own form to request a vote-by-mail ballot! Just write down all the information on any piece of paper and mail it in to your county board of elections!” To our knowledge, this was the first time that an Ohio Secretary of State had highlighted this as an option. You did not seek legislative authority then -- just as you do not need it now.
As added confirmation, your predecessor Secretary of State Jon Husted initiated an online change of address system without legislative approval. We must wonder why online ballot requests would be any different?
2.) Your office can pay for return postage on paper request forms and absentee ballots.
ORC 3509.04v1 says a Board of Elections may not prepay postage. It does NOT prohibit the Secretary of State from prepaying postage. This affirms that you already have the authority to pre-pay return postage under current law. As added proof, HB 680 (which has not passed) would specifically prohibit the Secretary of State from prepaying return postage. HB 680 clearly aims to remove power that you currently possess.
During the 2020 Primary Election, your office even requested and used CARES Act funding for the purpose of prepaying return postage, and made clear you might use the funds for the same purposes in November.(3) Your request asked for broad authority. The Controlling Board subsequently gave your office this authority without any prohibitions.
However, it has since come to our attention that you may not actually be permitted to use CARES Act funding to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications, because the legislature already allocated funding for that exact purpose.(4)
There is a simple answer that solves all problems: your office can use Fund 5KM04 to send ballots, and use CARES Act funding for prepaid postage.
3.) You can establish multiple secure drop boxes for absentee ballots.
Right now in Ohio, there is currently only one secure ballot drop box location per county, no matter the county size. This needless burden forces many Ohioans to drive significant distances to return their ballot in time for it to be counted. This barrier will certainly prevent some Ohioans from returning their November ballot at all, due to a lack of safe transportation options available amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Stated plainly, nothing in Ohio’s ballot return procedure requires only one ballot drop box per county (ORC 3509.05).(5)
Your office also requested CARES Act funding for this purpose in the Primary Election, and made clear you might use the funds for the same purposes in November.(6) You have the resources and the authority to enact this small, meaningful change today for those counties that would like to add additional drop boxes.
4.) You can execute a paid voter education communications campaign targeted at historically marginalized groups to help Ohioans navigate the mail-in voting process.
Per ORC 3501.05, the Secretary of State has a duty to “conduct voter education outlining voter identification, absent voters ballot, provisional ballot, and other voting requirements.”
Thousands of Ohioans will be attempting to utilize Ohio’s absentee voting system for the very first time this November. The state has an obligation, especially during these unique times, to run a full voter education campaign to help voters understand and access Ohio’s vote-by-mail process.
5.) You can implement Automatic Voter Registration administratively using BMV records.
There is precedent for this action. Georgia and Colorado both enacted Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) administratively, rather than going through the legislature. And nothing in the Ohio Revised Code prevents the administrative implementation of AVR.
Furthermore, the Secretary of State and Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) already have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that determines how they share data. Ohio also already utilizes data matching to verify voters. Why couldn’t we use that technology to register voters based on verified data?
If you are willing to commit to improving Ohio’s voting process in this manner, we are eager to work with you.
We urge you to take action now, as time is of the essence.
The law is clear. As Ohio Secretary of State, you have full authority to immediately enact the five voting process changes laid out in this letter. As Ohio’s top elections official, we trust you will take the steps necessary to defend democracy when it is threatened by unexpected circumstances, as it is now with the COVID-19 crisis.
The integrity of Ohio’s election is in your hands. Please do not delay any further in executing these critical voting improvements. As stated previously, we are willing and eager to assist in any way possible.
Senator Sandra Williams Assistant Minority Whip 21st Ohio Senate District Senator Nickie J. Antonio 23rd Ohio Senate District
1.) Per ORC 3509.03, the absentee ballot "application need not be in any particular form...." It just needs all the required voter information.
Per ORC 3509.04, the Board of Election must send an absentee ballot to any qualified elector who submits an application “that contains all of the required information.” There are no other qualifiers. There is absolutely nothing preventing the ballot request from being electronic.
Please note, this particular ORC section also states that absentee ballot requests must be delivered to “the director.” As you know, this is commonly interpreted as meaning “the Board of Elections.” No one expects to hand their request to the Board of Elections director individually. It is frankly ludicrous that we could interpret “director” to mean, “Board of Elections,” but refuse to interpret "application need not be in any particular form...." as allowing applications to be submitted online.
2.) ORC 3501.011 allows a person to write their signature on a screen with their finger or stylus, much like one signs an electronic poll book or a pad at a store. Ohioans can register to vote online without a handwritten, fresh ink signature, by declaring under penalty of law that they are the person registering to vote (ORC 3503.20).
And, per 3501.011 (C), Any voter registration record requiring a person's signature shall be signed using the person's legal mark used in the person's regular business and legal affairs. For any purpose described in division (A) of this section, the legal mark of a registered elector shall be considered to be the mark of that elector as it appears on the elector's voter registration record.
3.) “The Secretary of State’s Office will utilize these funds to supplement state funding to implement the requirements of H.B. 197, including reimbursement to the County boards of elections for eligible costs. Eligible costs for reimbursement include but are not limited to: vote by mail printing, postage, and equipment; secure receptacles for the return of ballots; temporary elections staffing; cleaning supplies; and protective masks and equipment. Additionally, these funds will be used to assist with any preparations and changes related to the November General Election.”
"The Secretary of State's office intends to use these funds to support eligible costs related to implementing the 2020 election cycle as identified by the county Boards of Elections and prescribed by the General Assembly." -Secretary of State LaRose request to the Controlling Board (approved in June 2020)
4.) In Ohio’s 2019-2020 budget, there is a provision (SOSCD6 -- Absent Voter's Ballot Application Mailing -- Section: 395.20) allowing “cash and appropriation transfers from the Controlling Board Emergency Purposes/Contingencies Fund (Fund 5KM0)” for the purposes of printing and mailing absentee ballots.
Per EAC guidelines, CARES Act funding can only cover unanticipated costs incurred due to COVID-19. Obviously, the cost of sending ballots was very much anticipated when the budget passed in 2019.
The unanticipated costs related to the 2020 election would be prepaid postage, now that many Ohioans will feel absentee voting is their only safe option amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The legislature did not anticipate that many Ohioans would be essentially forced to vote by mail, and did not allocate any funding for prepaid postage in the budget. Therefore, the CARES Act funding could, and likely should, go toward covering pre-paid return postage costs.
5.) 3509.05 states that absentee ballot requests must be returned to “the director,” but this is generally interpreted as meaning “the Board of Elections,” since no one is handing their absentee ballot to the Board of Elections director individually.
The state simply cannot interpret “deliver it to the director” to mean, “deliver it to the Board of Elections,” but claim there cannot be more than one Board of Elections ballot drop box per county.
6.) “The Secretary of State’s Office will utilize these funds to supplement state funding to implement the requirements of H.B. 197, including reimbursement to the County boards of elections for eligible costs. Eligible costs for reimbursement include but are not limited to: vote by mail printing, postage, and equipment; secure receptacles for the return of ballots; temporary elections staffing; cleaning supplies; and protective masks and equipment. Additionally, these funds will be used to assist with any preparations and changes related to the November General Election.”