June 3, 2020
by Marion Marchet, PhD student in US studies at the research center Histoire et dynamique des espaces anglophones (HDEA) at the Sorbonne University. She is currently a Fulbright visiting research student at the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.
In a short ad entitled “How to Vote by Mail” published on March 4 by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, in the city of Cleveland (Ohio), a man asks her friend during the lunch break whether she intends to vote in person for the “big election”. In less than a minute and forty seconds, he runs through the pros of mail-in voting and debunks the few popular myths surrounding the method, which he has long adopted. The face of the woman, who was clearly underinformed and not even certain to vote at all, lights up (slightly) — convinced by the arguments she just heard, she and her husband will indeed be voting by mail for the next election.
While the elevator music and the casual look of this absentee voter do not seem to quite fit the urgency of the sanitary crisis and the never-ending conundrums it has caused on whether to maintain, postpone or cancel the elections, it is because the ad was in fact released five years ago, in March 2015.
It is now back on the official website of the county’s Board of Elections, which has hastily published five more since. Where and how to make an online request, print the forms and track the ballot once it has been sent — these small explanatory tutorials aim to clarify at the very last minute, and in the midst of the Democratic primary elections, the gray areas surrounding the procedures. Because of the pandemic, it indeed emerged as the ultimate resort for voters to avoid having to choose, as state governor Mike Dewine put it, “between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”
Specific to the US voting system (which, on the other hand, does not allow proxy voting as France does for instance), mail-in voting has been slowly but steadily gaining ground over the past decades. As the way elections are organized is left up to individual states, the process varies throughout the country. Ohio is one of twenty-nine states where it is permitted without voters having to justify why they cannot physically go to a polling place. Nevertheless, it is not automatically offered (as is the case in five states where a mail-in ballot is systematically sent to all registered voters), and a form has to be requested ahead of the election.
Following an unprecedented, last-minute power struggle between the state executives and the state Supreme Court on whether the in-person vote should be maintained or postponed – Election Day in Ohio was initially set for March 17, 2020 – voters were ultimately allowed either to drop their ballots directly into their Board of Elections’ mailbox by April 28, or rely on the severely disrupted United States Postal Service (USPS) and have it mailed in and postmarked by April 27.
That evening, presenting the first turnout figures for what was already clearly a landmark election, Ohio Secretary of State Franck LaRose proudly declared: “In a matter of weeks, we’ve done something that’s taken other states years to do – transform our state into one capable of voting entirely by mail.”
Given the preexisting voting infrastructure in Ohio, as well as in other states, this statement should seriously be watered down. Furthermore, this “transformation” initiated in times of crisis was only partial since the process – making an online request, receiving the ballot at home, mailing it back – had not been made any easier. Because of numerous delays in sending and receiving the ballots, more than 500,000 ballots (26%) out of the two million requested did not ultimately turn into actual votes.
The issue of mail-in voting resulted in surprisingly divergent stances between the Republican State governor, Mike DeWine, and the head of his own party currently in the White House, Donald Trump. Unable, as is often the case, to resist the temptation of turning the debate into a partisan one, the latter scathingly criticized the process (although he himself used it in Florida where he is registered) before associating it, in serious accusations, to voting fraud on behalf of the Democratic Party.
While the pandemic has only worsened the many social and economic divides already preexisting in our societies, this is one, within the Republican Party, no one had seen coming.
Despite overall sympathy for Trump – incidentally, it was in Cleveland during the 2016 Republican National Convention that the Trump-Pence ticket officially started the last chunk of the presidential race – the state of Ohio seemed to have suddenly socially distanced itself from the president.
Governor DeWine had already brought attention to himself when he decided very early on to cancel two campaign rallies for Democratic candidates Biden and Sanders, who had planned on coming to Cleveland on March 10 ahead of Election Day. He was then one of the country’s first governors to order the closing of polls and demand the primaries be postponed. Other measures implemented to contain the pandemic in the state, in stark contrast from the president’s overall attitude, led to unprecedented demonstrations in the state capital, Columbus. Anti-lockdown demonstrators gathered in front of the statehouse, this time not to protest against a Democratic executive, as was the case in the neighboring state of Michigan, but a Republican one, despite the latter having been supported by Trump in person during his own 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
The case of Ohio and DeWine’s leadership, especially regarding voting, is therefore puzzling and raises several questions. Should it be understood as a nationwide exception, perhaps some sort of temporary estrangement? Or does it reveal more profound cracks within the Party?
Although it is still too early to assess how much COVID-19 might have shaking up the current Party unity, and more broadly, the US national political landscape, the latest developments in Ohio are nevertheless not very encouraging. In a state where gerrymandering and electoral roll purges have been rampant, mail-in voting has inevitably become a new vehicle for partisan battles regarding voting access, all the more so after the chaotic experience the state primaries turned out to be.
Ahead of the November presidential election, a bill was recently introduced by a Republican representative in the Republican-controlled state legislature. It lays out several recommendations on the potential carrying out of elections almost exclusively by mail in the event of another public health emergency. The bill is harshly criticized by some Ohio Democratic Congressional representatives and organizations, who fear that, if implemented, the legislation will have detrimental effects on voter turnout and the fairness of the election process. They see it most specifically as another attempt by Republicans, similar to previous initiatives throughout the state and at various levels of governance, to deter poorer, and therefore Democratic voters from taking part in the election if they were to be held through the proposed « backup » plan.
In the end, the issue of electoral fraud, although very often discussed when it comes to mail-in voting, is not always relevant and hides underlying dynamics. Besides, as the case of Ohio shows, and despite the President’s accusations, Republicans have successfully managed to take advantage of the new sanitary constraints to maintain control over the voting process and keep it in line with their own electoral interests.
After many unexpected turnarounds due to the pandemic, it seems that the “post-COVID world”, in this Midwestern state, will not be so different from the one we knew beforehand.
Marion Marchet is a PhD student in US studies at the Sorbonne University's research center Histoire et dynamique des espaces anglophones (HDEA). She is currently a Fulbright visiting research student at Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs. She received the Institut des Amériques' 2019 IdA-Fulbright Prize.