How rural counties are fending off mail-in misconceptions, recruiting poll workers

The Columbus Dispatch
Mike Arno, of St. Clairsville, plans to go to the polls to vote on Nov. 3. “That’s tradition. It’s like a birthday. You have to go,” he said.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — In the Ohio Valley Mall, a group of retirees sits outside CJ Buckett’s Candy Shop, trading jabs, barking at the TV and seeking refuge from the 90-degree heat.

Mike Arno, 75, is quick to argue politics with his friends. He lives two miles up the road in Bridgeport, a village in Belmont County that sits across the Ohio River from West Virginia.

The former coal miner and Navy veteran voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and has few kind words for President Donald Trump. But Arno and his buddy, an ardent Trump supporter, agree on one thing: mail-in voting is a joke.

“I’m going to the polls,” Arno said. “Why not? That’s tradition. It’s like a birthday. You have to go.”

Between Trump’s unsubstantiated statements suggesting widespread fraud in mail-in voting, recruiting poll workers and meeting COVID-19 guidelines, counties across the state face an uphill battle to prepare for the Nov. 3 election as safely and securely as possible.

In many rural communities such as St. Clairsville in Belmont County, voters have little faith in the government’s ability to ensure the security of mail-in ballots.

And it’s especially difficult in rural counties like Belmont and neighboring Guernsey and Noble counties in eastern Ohio, where local election boards are working around the clock to adapt.

“There’s always reservations and concerns. We just try to stay on top of it every day and make it happen like it’s supposed to,” said Kelly McCabe, director of the Belmont County Board of Elections.

Arno and his friends have little faith in the government’s ability to ensure the security of mail-in ballots.

“Just look at how many dead people got stimulus checks,” he said. “You can’t rely on anything anymore.”

If Belmont County residents are confused by messaging from Trump or social media about how mail-in voting works, McCabe urges them to contact the board of elections directly.

“Just please call us and let the people who deal with the laws of the elections and run the elections answer their questions,” she said. “We all take an oath and we have laws that we go by.”

The distrust of mail-in votes is a particular concern for Ohio’s smallest county.

“Oh, Noble County feels the exact same way as the president,” said Chelsea Cline, deputy director of that county’s board of elections.“They want their election planned the same way it’s always been.”

Cline said Noble County residents aren’t worried their ballots will be mishandled by the board, but rather their applications to receive a ballot or the ballots themselves may wind up lost or stolen.

“They’re more worried about it going from the post office to West Virginia, Pennsylvania or other parts of Ohio,” she said. “The way we kind of say it is, ‘It’s the other people that are involved that they’re more worried about.’”

“Which is ludicrous,” responded Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. He noted Ohioans have been voting by mail since 2006.

“If I really wanted to commit mail fraud basically I’d have to follow a mail truck, get the ballot, steal it, know the person’s social security number and their driver’s license number, their date of birth and then forge their signature,” Ockerman said.

There are all kinds of safeguards in place, he said. Voters must call to request a ballot application, send in their application and then receive their ballot in the mail. Each ballot is authenticated at many points in the process and cross-referenced with the election board. Mail-in, absentee and provisional votes are also all counted the night of the election.

Marcia Metcalfe, deputy director of the Guernsey County elections board, said this year’s election will be challenging, but she hopes it’s manageable.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s office sent out a survey to all of the state’s previous poll workers to gauge interest in working this year’s election, the deputy director said.

Guernsey County has 35 precincts and needs 140 poll workers — four workers per precinct. Metcalfe’s heard back from nearly 100 of her county’s 140 workers. While 35 or so have said they can’t make it this year, she’s not worried about finding replacements.

“They all felt so bad and we’re doing well with substitutes, so, no, I’m not real concerned with trying to fill spots,” Metcalfe said. “We’re going to try and pair new volunteers with experienced workers so they don’t feel nervous or worried.”

But long-time Guernsey County poll worker Roger Davis still hasn’t made up his mind about whether he’ll work on Nov. 3.

Davis initially raised his concerns as a participant in Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative journalism project involving nearly 50 news outlets that held several two-hour, remote forums with Ohioans in early July. They discussed their election concerns and how the local news media can improve their coverage.

“The COVID thing is kind of a wild card,” Davis said in an interview with The Dispatch.

However, the Cambridge resident believes that even if more folks head to the polls in November, as opposed to mailing-in a ballot, the county’s low population means social distancing is a reasonable solution to the virus.

If Noble County residents do choose to vote in person, Chelsea Cline, county elections board deputy director, wants voters to be respectful of poll workers’ health and safety.

“Wear a mask,” she said. “Don’t come out if you feel sick. Don’t come in and infect everybody else.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has said Ohioans are required to wear masks if they vote at the polls, but poll workers will not be required to enforce the governor’s mandate.

“We are not the enforcement authorities for the mask mandate,” LaRose, a Republican, said during a news conference Aug. 13. “Our elections officials are not there to enforce mask mandates. It’s not our job. But it’s rude for people to show up and refuse all the opportunities we give them.”

Cline said they won’t turn away prospective voters for refusing to wear a mask — it’s their constitutional right to vote — but anyone who refuses to comply with the governor’s orders will first be asked to vote curbside.

If a voter refuses to vote curbside and insists on voting inside while unmasked, poll workers will help the individual while maintaining social distancing between the individual, other voters and poll workers , LaRose said.

“You know, a lot of our poll workers’ concerns are: are the voters going to wear masks?” Cline said. “You can’t tell someone that they can’t vote ... but I will say: be mindful.”

Ohioans can request an application for a mail-in ballot at until noon on Saturday, Oct. 31. Voters can submit applications beginning Oct. 6. Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day in order to be counted, but voters can also return ballots in-person to their county board of elections before the polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3.