COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Health and safety guidelines that Ohio's elections chief sent to county boards Wednesday recommend, but do not mandate, mask-wearing and other preventive measures for those voting in person this fall — a nod to voter freedoms in a closely divided battleground state.
In a Statehouse news conference designed to reassure voters about the safety and security of casting their vote, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said nothing — including the coronavirus and skepticism about mail-in voting that's been stoked by President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican — will stop the election and that it will be safe and secure.
“I'm not going to let Ohioans be subjected to disinformation, whether it's coming from a foreign adversary or it's coming from a domestic American politician," he said. “I'm going to set the record straight.”
LaRose said he is strongly recommending masks for in-person voters to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He characterized refusing to wear a mask into a public polling place as rude, unmannerly and, like picking one's nose, “just gross.”
But LaRose said requiring masks to be worn would not only duplicate Ohio's statewide mask mandate, it would step on people’s right to vote and place an unfair enforcement burden on poll workers. Those in-person voters who choose not to wear a face covering will be given options, including voting outside or using the curbside option, but they will not be stopped from voting inside if that's their choice.
LaRose also recommended ignoring a legal provision that allows requesting an absentee ballot up to the weekend before Election Day and to request a ballot no later than Oct. 27, a week before Election Day. He repeated his longstanding position that the legal deadline of three days before the vote doesn't give ample time for the U.S. Postal Service to turn around mail-in ballots. Lawmakers have so far ignored LaRose's calls to change the law.
But LaRose emphasized that those concerned — though he argues unjustly — about the safety of absentee voting can take advantage of 28 days of early voting across the state or vote in person.
The mask recommendation was part of a 48-point voting safety plan that LaRose sent to the battleground state's 88 county boards of elections ahead of the presidential election. All are based on recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While emphasizing the accessibility of voting in Ohio, LaRose's plan stopped short of expanding the number of drop boxes where Ohioans will be able to hand-deliver their ballots this fall. A single drop box will be available in each county for now, LaRose said, which he said is all he's authorized to provide.
“Candidly, I think this is a question for the General Assembly,” he said. He said adding new drop boxes could risk litigation, which could burden election boards to and confuse voters.
The Ohio state president of voting rights group A. Philip Randolph Institute, Andre Washington, criticized the decision.
“Why should have to pack my kids up, gas the car up, pack a picnic basket and drive all the way to the other side of town just to drop my ballot off?” he said during a Columbus Metropolitan Club forum with LaRose where they discussed the decision. “I'm truly upset because now people are going to be disenfranchised about the election process.”
Ohio's largest county, Ashtabula, has an area of 1,368 square miles (3,540 square kilometers). Heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, is the state's second largest county in area at 1,246 square miles (3,230 square kilometers) and its second most populous.
Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said her organization doesn't agree that LaRose needs additional legal authority in order to open multiple polling places in a county. She said every voter needs an election plan, which includes picking a method for voting; figuring out related deadlines and forms of acceptable ID and locations; securing any necessary transportation; and researching the candidates and issues.
LaRose said 35,000 poll workers are desperately needed in order to open voting locations statewide and he hopes that rules set out in his plan will reassure prospective workers that the experience will be safe.
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5. Early voting begins Oct. 6.