Late Wednesday night, Secretary of State Frank LaRose sent a directive to the boards of election in all 88 Ohio counties, telling them to leave state House and Senate races off the May 3 ballot.
“Barring any action from the General Assembly or action by the court, Secretary LaRose is prepared to move forward with a May 3 primary that includes candidates for statewide, congressional, and local offices, as well as local ballot issues, such as school levies,” a news release from LaRose’s office says. “As usual, Ohio voters can expect a secure, accessible, and accurate election.”
The map for Ohio’s 15 congressional districts is also uncertain; the Supreme Court has twice overturned a new district map for the same reason it rejected state legislative maps, and has yet to rule on a third version.
“With the recently invalidated state legislative districts and a decision still pending on our congressional districts, it will be impossible to hold a single primary election if we maintain the May 3 date,” said Sen. Tina Maharath, a Democrat who introduced Senate Bill 316 to move the May 3 primary. “We must move the primary to give boards of elections the time they need to accurately conduct the primary and ensure that all Ohioans can trust the security of the election.”
The Ohio Supreme Court has three times overturned maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission. The court determined that those maps, which passed without support from the two Democrats on the seven-member commission, all unfairly favored Republicans.
The court set a deadline of March 28 for the commission to produce a fourth set of maps, and the commission is meeting daily — this time with assistance from independent map-drawing experts and federal court mediators. But any plan produced at this point, even if it faced no legal challenges, would likely be too late to use May 3.
Those hired map-drawers were at work Thursday with Democratic and Republican staff, with their negotiations made public for the first time and streamed live on the Ohio Channel.
On Thursday morning they debated what range of partisanship in a district should still be considered “competitive,” such as a 48%-52% partisan breakdown; and wrangled with getting statewide election data since 2016 broken down to the smallest level recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Because of the uncertainty of the redistricting, it’s impacted the local boards of elections. And if a primary is split, that will mean more hurdles to jump.
Butler County Board of Elections Deputy Director Eric Corbin said a split election means a third countywide election between May and November that voters, and the county did not budget, and means an estimated $350,000 would be needed.
“We still have to spend the time to test the same number of machines for an election for the first election and for the second election. That cost is exactly the same whether the voters come out or not,” he said.
Then there is the need for poll workers. They still need poll workers for the May 3 election, but in a split primary election, they’ll need poll workers for that election, too.
“If it’s split, the main hurdle right now is the May 3 primary election because we generally have from the 90 day deadline to the 45-day UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) deadline to prepare the ballot and the election. That is 6-1/2 weeks. What we’re doing now is starting that 6-1/2 week process and we’re going to cram it into 12 days.”
Then they have to make sure the ballot is proofed and correct in that short window of time, and won’t have a lot of time to test early voting machines if the May 3 primary stands.
Corbin said the best-case scenario for boards of elections would be to delay the election.
Ohio Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, said the whole redistricting process “is frustrating beyond belief.”
“I obviously want a May primary,” she said. “It has just been terrible for everyone and I feel badly for my constituents because they have to be confused.”
She said some of the sitting lawmakers “have taken on more due to not knowing where (district lines) will be.” As the Ohio Redistricting Committee has worked to redraw the General Assembly districts, Carruthers said the district cartographers “never once asked the representatives about the districts or what they thought or where they thought. It’s all about numbers and not people and it’s very wrong. We know our districts. We know the people better than mapmakers.”
Ohio Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., who also supports keeping the primary on one day, wants to limit voter confusion, which he hears from voters.
“So many times people are asking, ‘Are you sure you’re going to be my rep?’” he said. “I tell them, ‘I’m not 100% sure,’ and at this time I want to be proactive, not reactive, and try to get out to as many people as possible.”
While campaigning is a challenge as district lines could change, the proposed new Butler County district lines, however, have not changed in the three proposed maps by the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
LaRose said he is currently prepared to go forward with a May 3 primary that includes statewide, congressional and local candidates, as well as local ballot issues.
In an announcement, the secretary of state’s office said the new date for the General Assembly would be up to them to decide, but two options are that they might move the entire primary election to a later date, or they could just move General Assembly and state central committee primaries, possibly in August.
He added that if the Ohio Supreme Court rules against the current challenged congressional map, those primary races would need to be delayed as well. If it is too late for local boards of elections to remove those federal races from the ballots, those votes would not be counted.