How mail-in voting works in Ohio: A step-by-step guide
Mail-in or absentee voting has in the past only accounted for a small percentage of all votes cast nationwide. But as a global pandemic put a stop to normal life for most Americans, an unprecedented number of states encouraged voting by mail, including Ohio and Kentucky, and voters listened.
This change brought with it a number of concerns about election security and widespread voter fraud from a number of politicians, principally former President Donald Trump. These claims are dubious at best.
Mail-in votes are just as safe and secure as voting at your local polling place on Election Day, says Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Ohio's chief elections officer and, like Trump, a Republican.
"The President raises concerns that may be valid in other states, but not in Ohio," LaRose told WVXU in 2020. "The President is responsible for all 50 states and I'm just responsible for Ohio and the 8 million registered voters here need to know that vote by mail is secure, easy to use and your vote will be counted."
In reality, there is little evidence of widespread mail voter fraud anywhere in the U.S.
Hamilton County Board of Election Director Sherry Poland explained to WVXU how mail-in voting really works, step-by-step, and all the security measures that ensure your ballot is counted correctly.
Requesting a ballot
It starts with registration, which you can complete right now online at VoteOhio.gov. Then you can request a mail-in ballot by filling out a form from your county’s Board of Elections.
When your application is received, all the identifying information on the application — like your name, date of birth, signature, Ohio driver's license number or social security number — are electronically and manually cross-referenced with information from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and from your original voter registration form. This ensures that the person applying for a ballot is really who they claim to be.
Then, a bipartisan team from the Board of Elections creates a ballot packet, which includes a voter's personalized ballot from their district held inside an identification envelope which contains another form with identifying information. That envelope is inside a second return envelope alongside instructions to ensure the ballot is filled out correctly.
After a voter receives their ballot and fills it out, they seal their ballot inside the identification envelope, and seal the identification envelope inside the return envelope. This creates two layers of protection for the ballot from anyone trying to get in and tamper with it.
Ballots can be either mailed to the voter's county Board of Elections using the Postal Service or dropped off by hand at the Board of Elections office. There is a touchless drop box for absentee ballots outside the Hamilton County board offices on Smith Road in Norwood.
Voters mailing their ballots must have them postmarked one day before Election Day. If you drop off your ballot by hand, you have until 7:30 p.m. on Election Day to return your ballot.
The verification process
Once a ballot reaches the Board of Elections — whether it be on Election Day, days later or weeks before — every ballot goes through the same verification process. Just like with the mail-in application, information on the identification envelopes is verified by a bipartisan team electronically and manually. Still sealed, the ballots are stored in a room with two locks so that one Republican and one Democratic Board of Elections employee are needed to access the room.
Mail-in ballots are then removed from their envelopes and inspected to ensure they don’t have coffee stains or tears, which would make them unable to be read by machines. Damaged ballots are still counted, just by hand instead. After being flattened to remove creases, ballots are fed through a machine that captures the voting record but does not create a count of how many votes a candidate has received. That ensures employees of the Board of Elections don't have any information about the results of an election - they find out the results at the same time the public does.
On Election Day
Once Election Day arrives, the data from the vote capturing machines is manually moved to a tabulation machine that generates the election results. That data is then moved by hand again to a computer that sends it to the Ohio Secretary of State's office and the public. No machines in the vote count process are connected to the internet, and the manual moving of data is what causes the hours delay between polls closing and unofficial results being released later that night.
This counting process continues for another week as ballots continue to arrive in the mail, and an official count is released seven days after Election Day.
From voter registration to mail-in application to a final count, there are layers upon layers of security protection to ensure that mail-in voting is just as safe as voting in person. There are even additional layers of security at the state level. LaRose identified key safeguards that his office maintains to ensure complete election security.
The Secretary of State's office constantly adds and removes people from Ohio's voter rolls, using data from the national moving database, the Bureau of Motor vehicles, and death records. This ensures that only currently eligible voters can get ballots.
Additionally, ballot harvesting is prohibited in Ohio. This is when political operatives would collect ballots from both parties and throw out ballots they didn't want to be counted.
"That's what happened in North Carolina," LaRose says. "A Republican operative was convicted of election fraud for that very thing, throwing out Democratic ballots. In Ohio we don't permit that." Only the voter or their immediate family can submit ballots in Ohio.
When an anomaly occurs
After all this however, there still are some anomalies every election. According to Poland, this is usually voters who vote by mail and submit provisional ballots in-person. Every case is investigated individually. It usually results in a voter who mailed in their ballot near the deadline and then also voted in person to ensure that their vote counted; or an elderly person who forgot they mailed in a ballot already. In all of these cases, only one ballot is counted and no charges are filed.
In Hamilton County’s history though, there have been some cases of voter fraud.
There have been three cases of voter fraud in the last decade, two where a family member submitted a ballot for a recently deceased relative, and one where a poll worker attempted to have multiple votes cast and counted. All three cases resulted in indictments. One resulted in a prison sentence.
Despite this, voter fraud isn't a concern in Hamilton County.
"Voter fraud is extremely rare, and I can name those three cases off the top of my head because it's so rare in Hamilton County," Poland said. "It's important for people to know that we look at all that, on top of all the security measures we have in place."
Despite being secure and still easy to vote by mail, the process isn't perfect. Due to delays by the Postal Service in Butler County in the 2020 Ohio primary, some valid votes weren't counted. Diane Noonan is the director of the Butler County Board of Elections.
"We called USPS on the last day and they said they gave us all the ballots, but Tuesday morning they showed up with 317 ballots," Noonan said. "It was the Post Office's fault for not sending us the ballots by the time they had to be here — May 8, (2020) according to state legislation. We tried to go to the Secretary of State to try and still use those ballots but we were not permitted."
"It's just sad, there's nothing that we could do," Noonan said.
To avoid a similar fate for your ballot, Noonan recommends submitting your ballot in the mail at least one week before Election Day, or by dropping off your ballot by hand at your county's Board of Elections office.
This article was first published Aug. 2, 2020.