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Increase in Voter Turnout for the 2020 General Election Prepares Ohio for Possible Challenges in the Future

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a photo of voting signs with flags
Baldwin Wallace University
Voters cast ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections during the general election of November 2020. The voter turnout in the county was the highest since 2012.

The 2020 general election proved to be one of the most polarizing and
contested in recent history. But, how did things go in Ohio as votes were
cast and ballots counted?

By the numbers, 2020’s election was a good one. Turnout was high and an
audit released by Ohio’s secretary of state Jan. 5 showed a 99.98% accuracy of the vote.

Increase in voter turnout

In Cuyahoga County, 631,199 ballots were cast. That means 71% of
registered voters participated in the election: the highest voter turnout
since 2012.

Mike West, manager of community outreach for the Cuyahoga County
Board of Elections, said a combination of media coverage and voter
involvement bolstered turnout and mitigated challenges.

"It went really well. There was so much publicity about the election in the months and weeks and days leading up to it that we really didn't have to remind people to request ballots, to vote by mail," West said.

Northeast Ohio voter turnout
Keith Freund
The voter turnout for November 2020's general election was 4 percent higher than in the 2016 election.

So fears of everything from lost ballots to voter fraud to violence turned out
to be largely unfounded. But, success in increasing voter participation and
the COVID-19 pandemic did generate challenges for elections officials, forcing them to adjust ahead of spring's election and beyond.

Finding safe ways to vote

West said a lot of voters discovered a way of voting many didn’t know existed before—casting their ballots from their cars.

"A lot more people wanted to use curbside voting. They were told that if they were concerned about health issues, that they could do curbside voting and that kind of overwhelmed the system. So, we're looking at how we want to present curbside voting information to people in the future," he said.

Some elections boards were prepared, assigning poll workers with full PPE
gear to assist voters who pulled into the lots of polling places but couldn’t
go inside. Other boards left it to chance. But the law—written to
accommodate voters with disabilities—says the option is supposed to be
consistently available.

Voting tension and troubles

And, while widespread fears of violence didn’t develop this fall, voting rights advocates say there were plenty of signs of tension and trouble reported via a network of hotlines and volunteers.

Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights
Under Law, said an unprecedented number of pre- and post-election law
suits should be taken as a sign to remain alert.

"We're going to have to continue to be vigilant because you can expect that elections in the future are going to be hotly contested at the national level and at the state level and at the local level. It’s going to require being on guard at all times," Greenbaum said.

He said the problems included false claims that could have disenfranchised
some voters.

"There was a lot of pressure being put on election officials and on judges to not count votes that should be counted and that were valid," Greenbaum said. "What we might see in a couple of courts is you might see sanctions against some of the lawyers that brought these cases because it really were baseless, and they were a challenge to democracy itself."

Among the logistics elections officials will have to address this coming year
is whether to again offer boxes for voters to drop off ballots and whether to
contract out ballot printing and mailing or handle it all in-house.

Moving forward with primary elections

But, many organizations are preparing for a different kind of challenge for
2021: how to carry the energy of the presidential general election forward
to a spring primary dominated by more mundane races for city councils
and school boards.

Dr. Geraldine Hayes Nelson is the president of Portage County’s NAACP. Within the confines of the pandemic, she and many in the branch worked throughout the election season on get-out-the-vote events and registering younger people to vote. Now, the challenge is to keep them engaged, still likely within the confines of the pandemic.

"I think that now people are seeing the value of not just for the big elections, but we [have to] be boots on the ground for them, and getting people out to vote, for the smaller elections. Those are critical elections as well," Nelson said.

She said one avenue to keep minority voters engaged is an attempt to
work through the Governor’s Office on African American Voter Outreach
and Education but that can also be part of the challenge.

"There is a mistrust of establishment, if you will," she said.

So, while the deluge of mail and long lines that marked the fall election
aren’t expected to be a problem come spring, elections officials are hoping
for one holdover: aware and passionate voters.

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Carter is an award winning multimedia journalist specializing in audio reporting and photojournalism. His work has appeared in NPR, The Washington Post and The Portager, where he works as a photo editor and reporter. His reporting centers around working class issues and the LGBTQIA+ community with a focus on voter disenfranchisement.