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Many states are planning on drastically different elections this year and mail-in ballots could be a big game changer.

USA TODAY

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A tsunami of Democrats seeking ballots through the mail in this pandemic-plagued presidential election year is upending the very dynamics of voting in Ohio.

The impact of the ground-shaking change shows up in two major ways:

  • The outcome of the presidential race in the bellwether Buckeye State appears even more unpredictable than usual.
  • Ohio could be among the states where election fraud is alleged simply because the leader in the presidential vote could shift dramatically on election night and possibly shift back a week-and-a-half later.

Before COVID-19 hit, more Ohio Republicans than Democrats voted by mail, generally speaking. Democrats favored voting early in person at their county elections board, or going to the polls Election Day.

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But in 2020, Democrats are far outdistancing GOP voters in requesting absentee ballots.

For example, at this point in the 2016 election, Stark County Democrats had asked for 6,000 mail ballots, compared with nearly 10,000 for Republicans.

This year, the Democrats in the area have sought more than 19,000, the Republicans fewer than 12,000.

Democratic ballot requests have more than tripled in Hamilton County as well, leaping from fewer than 17,000 four years ago to about 51,000 in 2020. Republicans have gone from about 16,000 to nearly 23,000.

In other words, the Cincinnati-area Democrats went from about even with the GOP in ballot requests to more than twice as many in a single election cycle.

A Quinnipiac Poll of likely Ohio voters last week showed that 46% plan on voting in person on Election Day, 35% foresee casting an absentee ballot through the mail and 16% say they will use an early voting location.

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A Fox News Poll released the same day showed that 59% of Ohio voters planning to cast their ballot in person favor Trump, while 67% of those voting by mail support Biden.

Here’s what all these numbers likely mean for the Ohio vote, presuming the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden remains reasonably competitive:

  1. Since counties typically release the count from early voting first on election night, and since Democrats are poised to dominate that vote, Biden almost certainly will jump to a quick lead in Ohio.
  2. However, the rest of the night will consist of a running accumulation of Election Day votes, which Republicans are expected to dominate. So by the end of the night, Trump could well have taken the lead.
  3. Now comes possibly the white-knuckle part. Once the Election Day totals are finalized, the secretary of state’s office will announce how many outstanding mail ballots remain. Under longstanding state law, ballots that are postmarked before Election Day are added to the total if they arrive within 10 days after the election.

No interim counts will be announced during that 10-day period, meaning the nation may not know who won Ohio until mid-November. Even then, the result won’t become official until elections boards certify the results. Roll in the possibility of lawsuits and a recount and you see why elections officials are aging before our eyes.

Of course, if the presidential election is already resolved in other states, few will remember the possible anguish over the Ohio count. But the real fear is that many other states also may wind up with inconclusive results as mail ballots flow in several days after voters have made their decision.

The Wall Street Journal reported that as of Thursday, more than 65.3 million voters had requested absentee ballots across 31 states and the District of Columbia.

A survey by The Journal and NBC News last week showed that 47% of Biden voters nationwide plan to vote by mail, compared with 11% of Trump backers.

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Trump, who has made numerous unsupported allegations of widespread fraud with mail voting, has indicated he may not stand for a delay in declaring a winner.

“I could be leading, and then they’ll just keep getting ballots and ballots and ballots and ballots,” Trump complained Friday night in a Virginia campaign rally.

“They’re talking about five, six, seven states that have this problem. So if we’re waiting for one state, does that mean the whole nation, the whole world is going to wait for one state?”

Biden told NBC News, “This is a typical Trump distraction — he’s trying to make everybody wonder whether or not the election will be legit.”

Ohioans have already asked for more absentee ballots this year than in all of the 2016 general election. Nearly 1.8 million requests were submitted by Sept. 18, compared with fewer than 1.3 million for the entire early voting period four years ago.

An analysis by the Ohio USA TODAY Network of the state’s seven largest counties — which have a combined 62 percent of the early ballot requests — shows the demand essentially double what it was four years ago at this time.

And that demand is driven by Democrats. In 2016, 28% of Franklin County’s absentee ballot requests at this point had come from Democrats, versus 23% from Republicans. In 2020, the Democrats’ share has climbed to 35%, while the GOP’s plummeted to 11%.

Voters not affiliated with either party make the most requests.

Despite Trump’s frequent attacks on mail-in voting, his Ohio campaign is urging Republicans to vote early.

Democrats are pleased with their big lead, but they aren’t sure what it means yet for the outcome of the election. Caleb Faux, a Hamilton County Democratic Party official and member of the Board of Elections, said it’s hard to tell whether the higher numbers show Democrats are more energized about the election or simply more interested in voting early.

He and other Democrats also are worried about the risks of mail-in absentee ballots: A small percentage goes uncounted every election because of missed deadlines, post office errors and mistakes by voters when they filled out their ballots. 

“That is a little concerning,” Faux said. “We’ve been trying to make sure people are aware of what they need to do.”

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