Ohio: What You Need to Know to Make Sure Your Vote Counts This November

What you need to know, including key deadlines, how to vote by mail, and more.

Grace Han/Thrillist
Grace Han/Thrillist

“As Ohio goes…” you know the rest. Our vaguely heart-shaped state has been a presidential election bellwether for over a hundred years. In recent elections, candidates have dropped millions of dollars in ads on the city of Cleveland alone. Though the pandemic has fundamentally altered many aspects of American life, Ohio’s electoral importance has stayed constant. On November 3, all eyes will be on us.

Voting is definitely going to look different this year. While in-person early voting and Election Day voting will be an option, COVID-19 concerns have many exploring vote-by-mail options. Either one will work, but it’s crucial that absentee ballot voters keep the state's deadlines in mind.

The important thing: Don’t let coronavirus complications discourage you from voting this year. All you need to vote safely is a plan. Educate yourself on your options, form a plan, and follow through by Election Day, and you can be confident your vote will be counted. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Ohio?

To vote in the 2020 General Election in Ohio, you must register by October 5. Anyone registering after the 5th won’t be eligible to vote until 2021. If you’re not already registered, we recommend you do it right now, or at least very soon. Don’t put it off or forget. Text yourself a reminder. Set an alarm on your phone. Tattoo it on your arm.

How to register to vote in Ohio

You can register to vote online, which is the quickest and safest way to do it. It doesn’t take long. Two minutes, according to vote.org. You’ll need your driver’s license/state ID number, your address, and your social security number. 
You can also print this form and mail it to your local county election office if it’s postmarked by October 5, but now might not be the best time to test the efficacy of your local post office branch. You can also register in person at your local election office. But just do it online now. Seriously. Switch the tab. We’ll be here when you get back.
If you’re not sure about your registration status, you can check it on VoteOhio.gov. It takes 30 seconds to check, which we’ll recommend doing just in case.

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in Ohio?

Ohio is one of 38 states (plus DC) with early in-person voting in the 2020 election. Early voting starts on October 6, the day after the voter registration deadline, and lasts until the day before the election. Early in-person voting is held at your county’s board of elections -- find yours here --  unless you’re in Summit, Miami, or Lucas counties.

Poll hours the first two weeks of early voting are weekdays only from 8am-5pm. Voting hours go later on weekdays and expand to weekends after October 19. On the final day of early in-person voting, November 2, polls close early at 2pm. You can find a detailed schedule on the Ohio Secretary of State’s election calendar.

Voting on Election Day itself is an option too, though with the crowds that usually brings out, voting early might be a safer bet. Polls will be open from 6:30am-7:30pm on November 3. If you have to vote day-of, make sure to scout out your polling location in advance and arrive early if you can. The possibility of another Georgia-style mess seems inevitable in at least some polling places, especially since many retirees, the bread-and-butter staple of poll workers, will understandably be opting out this year. (If you’re not immunocompromised and want the election to run smoothly in your area, consider volunteering at the polls).

If you plan to vote in person, either early or on Election Day, follow the safety tips outlined below and be sure to bring a valid form of ID -- the state has an exhaustive list of acceptable forms.

Can I vote by mail?

The dangers of COVID-19 have made absentee ballots an enticing option for voters this year. Requesting an absentee ballot is less restrictive and complicated in Ohio than it is in other states. That said, there are still a couple steps to go through, and you’ll probably need to buy yourself a set of stamps to follow them. Given the post office slowdowns of recent months, the sooner you can get things rolling, the better. As with registration: If you’re planning to vote absentee, request that ballot now. Immediately.

How to vote by mail in Ohio

The state itself makes a strong case for voting absentee via mail on its official absentee voting information page: "All Ohio voters whose registration information is up-to-date have the opportunity to vote in any election from the convenience of their own homes by requesting an absentee ballot. Absentee voting has many benefits -- You can vote early, it is convenient, it reduces the chance of lines at the polls on Election Day, and absentee ballots are the first votes counted on Election Night. Voters need only fill out and return an application and their absentee ballot will be mailed to them so they may make their selections at their leisure and return their ballot to the board of elections ahead of Election Day."

The first step is requesting a ballot. To get a ballot, you must fill out a request form and mail it to your county board of elections. Completing the ballot request form takes only slightly longer than registering to vote, and it requires most of the same information. There are a few ways to access the form. You can make an online request to have the form mailed to you, but we recommend the much easier options that let you fill out a PDF online and print it. Whichever method you choose, make sure to fill the request form out completely, sign it, and mail it straight to your BOE. You then must wait to receive your ballot by mail. 
The deadline to request an absentee ballot in Ohio is October 31. It’s important to note that this is three days before Election Day. If you’re planning to vote this way, under no circumstances should you wait that long to request one. Absentee ballots must be postmarked -- postmarked, not just placed in the mailbox -- no later than November 2, the day before Election Day, to be counted. To boot, they must be received by your county BOE no later than 10 days after the election. Not to beat a dead horse, but the USPS itself is recommending voters not take any chances by mailing in a ballot last-minute. We agree.

Is there a way to track my absentee ballot? How can I make sure it’s counted?

Once you send your absentee ballot, you can track your ballot online on the Secretary of State’s website.
If you’re planning to mail in your ballot, take care. Your ballot should come in a packet with two envelopes to ensure the integrity of the ballot. There’s an identification envelope which must be sealed inside a return envelope. Be gentle with those. A small tear -- no joke -- can get your ballot thrown out.
Fortunately, once you have your ballot, you don’t have to rely on your overworked mail carrier to get it delivered. You (or a “near relative”) can deliver your ballot in-person to your county board of elections. Check out your county’s BOE website for more information on the specifics. If you’re even a little nervous your absentee ballot might not make it in time to be counted, this is not a bad way to go.
A last word on advice for absentee voters: follow the instructions to the letter, and get it done as soon as possible. In April’s primary election, Ohio threw out one of every 100 absentee ballots. This November, make sure yours isn’t one of those.

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

While there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of contracting (or transmitting) coronavirus when voting in person, we all know by now the ways to minimize the risks. If you’re physically going to the polls, mask up, wash/sanitize your hands frequently, and maintain at least six feet distance from others.

If you’d like to do more than the minimum for safety, check out the CDC’s guidelines for voting safely. There are some ideas there you might not have considered, such as:

  • Bring your own pen, especially if voting early.
  • Don’t wipe down voting equipment yourself. In addition to being a not-that-helpful piece of hygiene theater, wiping down voting machines might damage them. Make sure your hands are dry before interacting with the machine, and simply wash your hands after you touch it.
  • Avoid crowds when possible. Early voting, as mentioned, will help with this. Vote during a mid-morning lull if possible. Driving by your polling location to scout out crowds beforehand is a good idea as well.
  • You should be doing this regardless of COVID-19, but check out a sample ballot for your district before going to vote. Knowing the ballot layout and how you’ll be voting helps minimize time indoors at the polls, which is safer for everyone. 

One thing to note is that Ohio is not requiring in-person voters to wear masks. Those without face coverings will be “offer[ed]... an alternative” to vote curbside, but ultimately, if they want to enter the polling location mask-free, they will be allowed to do so. Six-feet social distancing will be required inside polling locations.

On the bright side, this means curbside voting will definitely be an option in Ohio. In the statewide health guidelines for boards of elections, Secretary of State Frank LaRose frequently cites the importance of making curbside voting available. Specific details will vary from county to county and aren’t yet available for most polling locations, but keep an eye out in the weeks ahead.

The bottom line: Putting off voting is leaving it up to chance. Make a specific plan to vote and follow through, preferably as soon as you can. Your vote counts. Make sure it’s counted.

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Billy Hallal is a Thrillist contributor. You can find work from him at Time Out, The Normal School, and Thrillist’s Cleveland and Ohio writing.