COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Delays in the mailing of hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots across Ohio by a private vendor rocked by equipment challenges and overwhelmed by “unparalleled volume” should be addressed by next week, officials said Friday.
Midwest Direct CEO Richard T. Gebbie said his firm's business model for this election anticipated double the number of absentee requests fielded in 2016. Instead, it's been triple.
“It is fair to say that no one — not the various boards of elections, not Ohio’s secretary of state, not our company — anticipated the staggering volume of mail-in ballot requests that has actually occurred," Gebbie said in a statement issued Thursday.
“One of our counties, for instance, told us to expect 40,000 to 70,000 mail-in ballot requests," he went on. "To date, we have processed 95,000 requests for that county alone. With another 14,000 ballots requested from the county this week.”
That county is one of 16 where Midwest Direct provides mailing services for ballots through either a direct contract or a subcontract, said Maggie Sheehan, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Among them are Cuyahoga, Lucas, Summit and Mahoning, homes to some of Ohio's largest cities, all leaning toward Democrats.
In Lucas County, home to Toledo, Democratic U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur and others called earlier this week for LaRose to launch an investigation into the delays involving some 55,000 ballots. Democratic State Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, of Toledo, said LaRose should brief state lawmakers daily. Some 95,000 ballots were requested in Summit County, home to Akron. Another 63,000 were delayed in Stark County, home to Canton.
Mailings in Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, are on schedule, an elections board spokesperson said.
Delays have ranged from two days to a week, at a time when more pressure than ever before has been placed on mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Election and postal officials have long predicted high volumes could slow down 2020 ballots and they have urged voters to act early and to pay close attention. Those who do not receive a requested absentee ballot in time to vote can still cast an in-person, provisional ballot on Election Day.
Sheehan said LaRose has been meeting by phone with Midwest Direct executives since the middle of last week and he has been assured that the delays have been brought under control. In Ohio, counties run elections, so it is ultimately their job to handle their vendors.
“We’ve been informed that nearly every request made before the start of early voting are out, and the company has stated they will very soon be printing and mailing ballots on a same-day basis," Sheehan said in an email.
Messages were left Friday with Midwest Direct seeking comment.
Gebbie told the Akron Beacon Journal last week that the company, which uses industrial machinery to print, fold and stuff ballots into envelopes, ran into multiple equipment problems.
He said that a new machine from Italy took longer for engineers to calibrate than expected and that replacement parts for a another Swedish-made machine that broke down had to be tracked down in New York.
The full list of counties served by Midwest are: Butler, Cuyahoga, Clinton, Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Lorain, Lucas, Mahoning, Miami, Start, Summit, Trumbull, Union, Williams and Wood.
After counties first began reporting ballot delays last week, Sheehan said LaRose's office recommended any that could begin printing them in-house. If that wasn't possible, he urged them to develop a contingency plan.
“Some have already opted to execute on a contingency plan that no longer relies on Midwest Direct, while some have chosen to stick it out,” she said.
As of Thursday, Gebbie said the company's ballot-tracking software was showing that 85% of ballots were getting to voters earlier than the five to seven days that is standard for the U.S. Postal Service.
"Our staff is working 16 hours every day to make sure everyone who wants a ballot in the counties we are serving gets one in time to cast their vote,” he said.