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Published: Wednesday, 6/13/2012

Gerken urges postage-paid absentee ballots

Lucas County proposal could face opposition from state

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Pete Gerken. Pete Gerken.
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The Lucas County Board of Elections will investigate pre-paying the postage for absentee voter ballots in the Nov. 6 presidential election but could face opposition from the Ohio Secretary of State.

Pete Gerken, president of the Lucas County board of commissioners, urged the board Tuesday to consider including the cost of postage in its $3 million, 2012 budget and said the commissioners probably would be willing to help pay the additional cost.

The cost would be as much as $165,000, if the Ohio Secretary of State's predictions of a large volume of absentee voter ballots by mail hold up.

"We would entertain from the board any thoughts about continuing to do return postage," Mr. Gerken said. "I know we've done it in the past."

Use of absentee voter ballots has expanded since 2006 when the General Assembly changed the law to allow so-called "no-fault" absentee voting. Previously, absentee voters had to state a reason they couldn't vote on Election Day.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted announced Tuesday that his office would send two mass mailings to voters in all 88 counties with absentee ballot applications.

It was unclear whether state law would allow the county to pre-pay for returned absentee voter ballots. A lawyer for the Ohio Secretary of State told the elections board by email in February that, under longstanding law, the voter must pay the postage. However, the county has had prepaid absentee voter ballots at least since 2007 under that same law. "The law's a bit confusing," Mr. Gerken said.

Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the secretary of state, told The Blade Tuesday that postage is an item of value and Mr. Husted's office regards providing postage as a violation of a state law that prohibits giving something of value in exchange for votes.

Republican board member Jon Stainbrook said after the meeting that he would not vote to prepay absentee voter postage. "In a county where registration runs three to one Democrat to Republican you're giving the advantage to the Democrats who would be voting absentee," Mr. Stainbrook said.

Mr. Gerken said the policy would not be intended to favor either party but rather to improve voter access.

"People are free to vote however they want, whether by mail or in person. That's when democracy works best, when most voters have access to it," Mr. Gerken said. "We've done it in the past. We'll work with them, if it's practical, to do it again."

Elections Director Megan Gallagher estimated the postage to mail an absentee voter ballot and envelope to a voter at $1.50. She said she doesn't know what the return postage will be, in part because the ballot could end up being three pages long.

"We do anticipate a large vote-by-mail in November because everyone will be receiving an application to vote by mail," Ms. Gallagher said.

She said the secretary of state's office advised local boards to expect up to 50 percent of the number of voters who voted in the 2008 presidential election to opt for the mail-in ballots. That means as many as 110,000 ballots would be returned. At $1.50 each, the postage would be $165,000.

The secretary of state's office announced Tuesday that it would notify voters in two installments, just after Labor Day and again during the first week of October.

Absentee ballots are supposed to be ready to be mailed to voters starting Oct. 2. To vote by mail, voters must complete the forms by providing valid identification, date of birth, and a signature before returning the application to their county board of elections in the envelope provided.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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