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Election Protection is WKSU’s community information initiative focused on access, policy and community resources around voting this November.

Thinking About Voting Early, But Reluctant About Mailing a Ballot? Here’s What You Need to Know About the Alternatives

early voters at Cuyahoga County Board of Elections
Afi Scruggs
Voters find long lines when arriving to vote early in person at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Ohio is seeing record numbers of early voters. More than 1 million have already cast ballots and roughly 200,000 have already voted early, in person.

Election Day is two weeks away, but hundreds of thousands of Ohioans have already voted early, in-person. Mail-in voting is also on pace for a record, as worries about the pandemic and the efficiency of the postal service have convinced many voters to stand in line outside or use drop boxes at their boards of elections. Here's a look at what's driving the surge.

Long lines

It took Rick Oprzadek longer to park than it did to vote. Cars flowed steadily in and out of the lot around the Geauga County Board of Elections in Chardon. While county workers contributed to some of the traffic, lots of vehicles carried voters.

He’d come to drop off his ballot. He walked to the receptacle, opened the slot, inserted his ballot and that was that. Right behind him, others did the same. Under a tent on the other side of a sidewalk, 20 people waited to go inside the building to vote.

Oprzadek said the pandemic was a reason he decided not to wait until Election Day. He felt standing in line to vote then would be risky.

“My wife and I are both retired. She has a respiratory issue so as much as we can minimize the risk the better. That’s why we’re doing it early,” he said.

Contributing to the delays

In fact Ohio is seeing record numbers of early voters. More than 1 million have already cast ballots, and roughly 200,000 have already voted early, in person, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said. Worries about the pandemic and the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service have convinced many voters to stand in line outside in the weeks leading up to Election Day, or to use drop boxes at their boards of elections.

Geauga Board of Elections director Pete Zeigler thought the second week of in-person early voting would slow down from the frenetic pace of the first. But the steady flow of voters proved him wrong.

“We’re averaging just over 400 voters a day for early voting so far. The first day we were actually below 400, so we’re picking up if anything,” he said.

The scene at Geauga was similar to the one later last week in nearby Cuyahoga. About 75 people were waiting to vote in person right around lunch time. Cuyahoga County Board of Elections spokesman Mike West said voters seemed to be coming earlier rather than later.

“We’re seeing a larger number of voters come in the morning. In the afternoons, it’s generally fewer people coming to vote," West said. "But we are in uncharted waters here, so we don’t know what to expect. In the past, we would see this week slow down for the sheer numbers of people.”

Absentee ballots and drop boxes

Ohio seems to have avoided hours-long waits found in Georgia and Texas. But early voting hasn’t been free from stumbles. Summit County’s problems with delays in mailing ballots to voters led the board of elections to drop its contract with Midwest Direct, the company hired to mail them. About a dozen other counties have had similar problems.

Secretary of State LaRose has been sued in state and federal courts for limiting the drop boxes for returning ballots to just one location per county. Voting rights groups said the limit could disenfranchise minority voters. But a federal appeals court has, for now, blocked counties from offering more than one location, leading to traffic tie-ups in some counties.

In Geauga, Oprzadek said multiple drop boxes would have been more convenient for local voters.

“Geauga County is a large county (geographically), and there should be several more options for people who may not be able to travel such a long distance to come right here,” he said.

Safety precautions for in-person voting

Early, in-person voting is only done at county Board of Elections offices, though the process of casting the ballot is very similar to what you’d experience at the polls on Election Day. Here are the extended hours that remain for in-person early voting:

  • Through Friday, Oct. 23: 8 a.m – 6 p.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 24: 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 25: 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 26 through Friday, Oct. 30: 8 a.m – 7 p.m
  • Saturday, Oct. 31: 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. This is also the last day to register for an absentee mail-in ballot.
  • Sunday, Nov. 1: 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Monday, Nov. 2: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. This is the last day for early in-person voting.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 3: General Election. Polls open at precinct polling locations from 6:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Absentee ballots may be dropped off at boards of elections by 7:30 p.m.

But for voters who did opt for the trip for in-person early voting, Geauga and many other county elections boards started safety preparations before the first ballot was cast Oct. 6. That included socially distanced waiting lines, single-use pens and separate routes for entering and exiting. Cuyahoga County also has a one-way voting process and other precautions, West said.

“We have to have people read the health screening questions. If they say no to all of the questions, then we check their temperature, and they’re issued an armband to know they’ve been health screened," he said.

"Then they stand in line, and as check-in stations become available, voters are directed to a station where they show their ID and sign the poll book and are issued a ballot. Then they go to one of the booths, vote their ballot, put it in a scanner, get their ‘I voted sticker’ and then they’re all done,” West continued.

Concerns about COVID convinced Brian and Margaret Gardner to vote early in Cuyahoga County. But they worried whether their ballots would count if they mailed them and about disruptions on Election Day. So they decided to stand in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

“Looking at Ohio and Cuyahoga County’s COVID numbers and seeing a gradual rise in them, I’m very concerned about where things could be come Election Day. So now feels like a safe window. And this election is very important to us,“ Brian Gardner said. “There could be another shutdown if cases get extreme. What happens if there’s a legitimate public health reason to not have the election held?”

In-person early voting ends at 2 p.m. Nov. 2, the day before Election Day. Although there will be no in-person voting at boards of elections Nov. 3, ballots can be dropped off at drop boxes until 7:30 p.m.

Geauga County early in person voting ten
Afi Scrubbs
A tent awaits early in-person voters at the Geauga County Board of Elections Oct. 13.

Afi Scruggs is an award-winning writer/journalist and author who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Her career started in 1983 as a freelancer in Richmond, Virginia. After that, she worked at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Jackson, Mississippi, and Dayton, Ohio, before settling in Cleveland.