vision 2020

Relatively Non-Disastrous Ohio Primary Could Be Harbinger for November

An Ohio voter drops off an absentee ballot. Photo: Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images

After the dark, Kafkaesque April 7 primary in Wisconsin, characterized by Republican and judicial insistence on in-person election-day voting, the April 28 Ohio primary seemed relatively benign and successful. Unlike Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, Ohio’s Mike DeWine managed to postpone the original primary (scheduled for March 17) and make it a mostly vote-by-mail event. And as Nathaniel Rakich notes, between then and April 28 (the date set by the legislature for the delayed primary), Ohio managed to make a remarkable transition:

[E]lection 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).

The U.S. Postal Service reportedly took extra measures to speed up delivery of mail ballots to voters requesting them. And while Rakich believes thousands of voters did not get ballots in time to vote, it could have been far worse.

But the fact remains that turnout was terrible, coming in at 20 percent of eligible voters, as compared to 38 percent in the 2016 primaries. Was that the product of all the confusion over the date and the means available for voting, and initial fears that it might be dangerous? Or was it simply because there was no Republican presidential contest, and Biden was the presumptive Democratic nominee well before April 28?

Here’s the catch, though: Even if the bad turnout was about the lack of competitive races rather than the machinery and rules for running the primary, the fact that Ohio struggled to manage it all is a bad sign for November, as Stephen Stromberg observes in the Washington Post:

Even with more than a month to transition voters to mail-in balloting, neither the state nor its people were ready …

I]f Ohio or any other state is as ill-prepared in November, the results would be far worse …

If more than the small minority of eligible Ohioans wanted to vote, as should be the case in November, the consequences would have been far more tumultuous.

The percentage of eligible voters who participated in Ohio’s 2016 general election was 64 percent. Given all the stakes in this year’s vote, and the massive mobilization efforts long underway, the demand for ballots could be much higher this time around, although it’s entirely possible that thanks to the coronavirus, it still won’t be safe to hold a “normal” election.

Can Ohio handle it? How about other states that may or may not get a dress rehearsal for a massive shift in election procedures during a primary? Is a non-catastrophic results like Ohio’s good enough?

Unfortunately, we may find out the answers to all these questions. And as Stromberg rightly says, “The legitimacy of the November vote — and people’s lives — will be in peril.”

Non-Disastrous Ohio Primary Could Be Harbinger for November