With abortion rights at stake, a special election in August has Ohio’s election offices scrambling

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A high-stakes special election in August with national political implications upends local election offices across Ohio, as already-stressed election workers suddenly face a mountain of logistical challenges after Republican lawmakers backtracked on their own legislation.

Officials must lure poll workers away from holidays, move polling stations reserved for summer weddings, interviewing or other events, and repeatedly retest ballot language after the high court of the Status found errors.

” It’s discouraging. It’s exhausting,” said Michelle Wilcox, a Democrat who serves as chief electoral officer in tiny Auglaize County in northwest Ohio. “When you’re overworked, you haven’t had any breaks, you’re stressed, things can happen. These are the things that lead to election day disasters, and having to do it on such short notice is unsettling. »

The tight schedule was imposed by Republican lawmakers, who overturned a new law that took effect in January to eliminate the August election. In May, they added the August 8 special election for a measure that aims to make it harder to change the state constitution. If passed, the amendment would raise the threshold for passing future constitutional changes by a simple majority, as has been the case for more than a century, to 60%.

The Republicans’ immediate goal is to make it harder for voters to pass an abortion rights amendment that is in the works for November.

Other pending constitutional amendments could also be affected, including efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, raise the minimum wage, reform Ohio’s redistricting system and limit vaccination mandates.

All of Ohio’s living former governors, Democrats and Republicans, and five bipartisan former attorneys general oppose constitutional change, along with a broad coalition of labor, faith, voting rights, civil rights and community groups. He is backed by an alliance of powerful anti-abortion, gun rights, agriculture and business groups.

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, said the effort is part of a growing movement in Republican-led states to weaken citizens’ access to direct democracy and will have national implications.

“What happens in Ohio, win or lose, will impact the future and reverberate across the country as it’s caught between two major election years, and this is a special election.” , she said. set the tone for how we enter the legislative sessions of 2024, what tactics, what nuances state legislatures can do to try to undermine the will of the people and impact the ability of citizens to put questions to the ballot .

Despite the significance, August’s No. 1 could be decided by a fraction of Ohio voters. Participation forecasts diverge enormously.

Republican Joe Kuhn, a member of the Auglaize County Board of Elections, said the issue should come before voters in a regular general election when history suggests turnout would be higher.

“This goes far beyond the issue of abortion and reproductive rights which will hit in November. This affects all other matters that would affect the Ohio Constitution. The law has been in place since 1912,” he said.

Military and overseas voting began Friday and voter registration ends July 10. Early voting begins the next day.

Chronically low voter turnout was among the reasons Ohio canceled the August election in the first place. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose testified at the time that they were bad for taxpayers, election officials and the civic health of the state, largely because few people show up.

“That means a handful of voters end up making big decisions. The side that wins is often the side that has a vested interest in seeing the matter considered,” he told senators last year. “That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.”

A group of Republican lawmakers refused to back down on the issue, as LaRose has since done, blocking passage of a bill that would once have restored the August election and provided $20 million for organize them.

Legislative leaders decided the bill was not needed, writing the date of the special election into the resolution that sent No. 1 to the polls without the money to pay for it. One Person One Vote, the opposition campaign, challenged the move as illegal, but lost.

The money was included in the state’s budget bill, but Wilcox, the chief electoral officer of Auglaize, said the lack of available money created another set of time-consuming tasks for election commissions. . This includes clearing expenses with county commissioners that would normally form part of their annual budgets and filing tedious reimbursement paperwork.

Also, she said, the contracts with the polling stations did not include the August election date. That means postcards will have to be sent out notifying voters of the moves, then again in the fall to remind them to return to where they normally vote. She said her county of about 45,000 people barely dodged a problem at the local fairgrounds, which houses 10 polling stations serving about 9,000 voters.

In populous Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, “a few dozen” polling places had to be changed, spokesman Mike West said. They include churches now reserved for weddings and school buildings being renovated.

Aaron Sellers, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus, said the county will only use 282 polling places, instead of its usual 307, displacing about 7% of voters.

“We had 25 locations that couldn’t accommodate us, due to resurfacing, church camps, Bible studies, that sort of thing,” he said.

To attract people who might be planning a vacation in August, Franklin County voted this month to raise the pay of its election workers. Sellers said the $134 Election Day allowance is set by the state, but the County Elections Commission was able to increase allowances for election workers for training time and installation duties.

Hamilton County Chief Electoral Officer Sherry Poland said her Cincinnati office only had three polling places with disputes, leaving recruiting poll workers as its biggest challenge. Commissioners voted last year to give county employees a day off if they serve, without needing to use vacation time, as well as an extra day off, she said, they get focus on this group first.

Changing the language of ballots has been another challenge for local election boards. The original wording approved by the state’s polling station was ruled erroneous by the Ohio Supreme Court, which ordered it rewritten. Wilcox said that meant testing the voting systems multiple times to accommodate wording changes.

The initial, intermediate and final formulations all required testing, she said, an exercise that takes time for small counties — and a huge one for a county like Cuyahoga, which has 4,000 different types of ballots.

Wilcox said his county’s three-person office was struggling. At one point, the office was juggling tasks related to four separate elections: an audit of the spring results, the August elections, petitions for the November ballot and the first 2,024 candidates beginning to declare their candidacies.

Additionally, groups advancing the abortion rights measure for the November ballot are aiming to collect 700,000 signatures. They must be presented to local election offices by July 5.

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