CLEVELAND, Ohio—As she hovered along the sidewalk a few hundred yards from the front door of Cuyahoga County Board of Elections this week, Sharletha Langford laughed a bit about the time she had invested to vote. She had put in about a half-hour so far, and it looked like it would take at least another half hour before she got to the ballot box.
Langford was opting for early voting mainly because she knew that her retail-store work and child care responsibilities would have been tough to balance on Tuesday. Standing in line on Thursday morning in downtown Cleveland seemed to be a good option, even as the city finds itself stuck in the throes of the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.
“I thought it would have been faster to do this way, but maybe it’s not,” she told The Daily Beast with a smile.
Langford and other voters said the recent COVID-19 surge in Ohio was a key factor in their decision to vote early. One man in line, who resides in the suburbs and declined to give his name, put it bluntly: “I’m hedging my bets that voting will be safer now than next week.”
But the specter of right-wing shenanigans also loomed large, thanks in part to some recent local history. A wannabe shadow-governor has been accused of fomenting a plot to kidnap and arrest Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, while conservative clowns Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl were recently indicted for alleged voter intimidation robocalls in the state.
Meanwhile, Ohio finds itself veering back toward its traditional status as a bellwether state.
The last time a presidential candidate won Ohio and lost the general election was Richard Nixon in 1960. But Donald Trump won Ohio by about 8 points in 2016, even as he lost the national popular vote. This defied recent electoral history: In the four elections between 2000 and 2012, the winners (Barack Obama and George W. Bush) won the Ohio vote and the popular vote in all but one case. That was in 2000, when Bush won Ohio by 3.5 points and Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote.
Like many states, Ohio has seen a big increase in early voting this fall. Statewide, as of Tuesday, there had been over 743,000 early-in person votes cast as opposed to about 289,000 on the same date in 2016. There had also been nearly 3.2 million absentee ballot requests received by the state, compared to about 1.6 million in Ohio in 2016.
The trends were similar in Cuyahoga County, where about 45,000 early votes had been cast at the county board of elections and about 340,000 mail ballots requested by late Thursday, roughly 38 percent of the registered voters in the county. Final tallies are expected to be all-time highs.
As in states from Texas to Wisconsin, COVID-19 safety precautions colored the process. Voters had to wear masks to vote, and all had their temperature taken (on their wrists) before being allowed in the building.
As for intimidation, multiple Board of Election “rovers” (with “Vote” on their face masks) were walking the lines outside to make sure there was no campaigning of any kind going on. And no campaign vehicles blaring messages were cruising by voters as they waited in line, despite reports of aggressive activity in that vein from Florida to Virginia.
One way in which Ohio does mirror other GOP-dominated states: a beef over ballot drop-off boxes.
The Democratic Party in Cuyahoga County is not happy with the state’s limiting ballot drop-off boxes to one per county at the local board of elections. They think more drop-off boxes in the inner-city minority neighborhoods would mean greater voter turnout.
“To say that we are important in this election is an understatement, and if you don’t think for one minute that was taken into consideration relative to the suppressive actions taken by the Secretary of State, I suggest you think again,” party chair Shontel Brown said at a recent press conference.
Of course, those running elections in Ohio insist their plan means public safety—and access—will not be compromised. “Elections have simply never been as accessible and secure as they are this year,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose wrote recently. “Voting is safe and we are ready.”
Mark West, manager of community outreach for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, echoed LaRose’s sentiment. Specifically, he suggested tolerance was low for chicanery of any kind despite fears of MAGA poll watchers and other mischief.
“If any violation of these [rules] happens, these people doing so will be asked to leave,” West said. “If they don’t leave, they will be forced to. Every state operates this way, so I tell people not to worry about safety issues while voting because it is not allowed to happen.”
Far more than right-wing activity, however, the virus in a Midwestern hot spot dominated voters’ minds not just in their sizing up of candidates but also in the timing of when they got their votes in.
Joe, who works at a nonprofit agency in Cleveland and declined to give his last name, expressed fear of the outbreak in the city spiraling when explaining his early vote on Friday.
“The surge in the COVID-19 infections influenced me to vote early like this,” he told The Daily Beast. “We don’t know what to expect next Tuesday, but it looks like the chances of infection will be worse.”
Voter after voter seemed to think instituting best practices in packed early-voting locations was all well and good. But the outbreak was heading in the wrong direction, and voting was widely seen as something best done and left in the rearview, as long lines again on Friday—stretching around the block—suggested.
As George Hunter, a Cleveland attorney who lives in suburban Shaker Heights, put it when voting Friday, “With the records for infections being set in Ohio right now, getting the voting done early is certainly a way to deal with the uncertainty of next week.”