TOLEDO, Ohio — U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), joined by fellow Democrats Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken and State Sen. Teresa Fedor, called for the immediate intervention by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and for the expedited delivery of all absentee ballots in Lucas County and the 20 counties being served by Midwest Direct.
On Wednesday morning, the Lucas County Board of Elections gave an update on absentee ballot fulfillment, issuing an apology for problems experienced with the third-party vendor contracted to print and ship the ballots. Cleveland-based Midwest Direct is the vendor in charge of printing, stuffing, and mailing election materials for 20 of Ohio’s counties.
Lucas County Board of Elections Director LaVera Scott said on Wednesday that of the about 62,000 absentee ballots Midwest Direct is to mail to voters on behalf of the board, the firm now has mailed 55,000, and 6,500 have not yet been mailed. Scott said Midwest Direct is to give the board an update at the end of each day, and she would not speculate on when the mailings would be completed.
No money has been paid to the vendor yet - until the contract is fulfilled, Scott said. She said the board does have a contingency plan in place to print the ballots themselves if there are further delays.
Gerken decried the delay, despite some ballots being delivered now.
"We have to make sure that voter access is protected. Some ballots have come back to the county today. They will probably be available by Monday. That's not what we signed up for," he said.
"The ballots could start being sent out Oct. 6. Today is now the 14th. That's time we can never get back. ... The only way we can get people to recover that time is to have people work quickly when they get their ballot. Fill it out immediately and get it in the mail or take it to a dropbox."
Gerken also called the second dropbox that the board of elections "begrudgingly" installed too small and he's calling for more boxes that are drive-up accessible by Government Center. "It's not too late," he said.
Gerken said he wants a full investigation into Midwest Direct and what happened there, at one point discussing what he called the "political tone of the land."
"I am calling for an investigation into what happened at Midwest. Lucas is not the only county this has happened to. ... We deserve to know what happened. The company has not put much into writing for us. The only way we knew the ballots went out is because our bank account was charged (for the postage)," he said.
Gerken described a photograph of Midwest Direct's headquarters that he said a contact at the New York Times sent to him, which shows a Trump flag flying in front of it.
WTOL 11 left multiple messages for response and clarification with Midwest Direct regarding Gerken's remarks.
A photo taken of the Cleveland headquarters of Midwest Direct on Wednesday showed no candidates' flags flying.
The newspaper quotes CEO Richard Gebbie as saying, “We have freedom to vote for who we want and support who we want. We fly a flag because my brother and I own the company and we support President Trump.”
In remarks to the Times, Gebbie emphasized that the ballots his company mailed met strict security standards.
Gerken said as smaller tranches of absentee ballot requests come in, the board of elections should look at fulfilling them locally, rather than relying on Midwest Direct.
He said that there has been nothing in writing explaining what has happened between Oct. 6 and Oct. 14.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Frank LaRose's press secretary said that the office is aware, has been in communication with Midwest Direct and characterized the news conference as a "headline-seeking" stunt.
"We welcome those public officials who just now took note of this issue to a conversation that began last week when we first learned from the county boards of elections about this issue," press secretary Maggie Sheehan said. "Headline-seeking stunts like today’s press conference undermine voter confidence and do nothing to help anyone solve a problem. Meanwhile, beginning last week, we swiftly recommended any impacted counties begin printing in-house if they had that capability, and if that wasn’t possible, 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.
"Midwest Direct has been sharing with us that the sheer volume of ballot requests has caused the unexpected delays. Our counties report the vast majority of requests that were made before the start of early voting on October 6th have been placed in the mail. Significantly higher volumes of absentee ballots were predictable, in fact, Secretary LaRose has been predicting it since the Spring, and we are pushing the county boards to stay on top of Midwest Direct every day until they're caught up.
"Ohio is a bottom-up state and Lucas County, like all counties boards of elections, have independence for who they choose to serve as their vendor. Since we don’t have a contract with Midwest Direct, we’re limited in what we can do to directly impact the situation – but we are certainly engaged and have been serving as an advocate for our county boards of elections and the voters they serve, including daily calls with Midwest Direct," she said.
Director Scott said there was confusion last week because of a statement on the election board site. That statement included a proposed distribution date for 59,000 ballots, which was supposed to be late last.
Scott said she wasn't certain that number was accurate and she was right because she checked with the postal service and no money had been taken out of the county's account for postage, meaning those ballots had not been mailed out. She said the board could not immediately reach the vendor Friday or Saturday.
A representative called Monday afternoon and confirmed that 5,705 absentee ballots had been mailed and the rest would be done by mid-week this week.
As of Tuesday, the board tweeted, 55,481 ballots were mailed. Voters can expect a 5 to 7 day delivery time with the United States Postal Service.
Scott says the board mailed out absentee ballots itself for the presidential primary in March. She said board members worked 12-hour days and six-day weeks to finish mailing the 40,000 absentee ballots for that election.
A record number of voters in Lucas County have requested absentee ballots in order to cast their votes in the 2020 general election from the safety of their own home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kaptur's office noted, "Unfortunately, thousands of ballots have yet to be delivered to voters who have requested them, in many cases weeks ago. Lucas County Board of Elections officials, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and Midwest Direct, the vendor in charge of printing, stuffing, and mailing election materials for 20 of Ohio’s counties, have an extremely limited time to correct these unacceptable delays before unprecedented and grossly unconstitutional voter disenfranchisement takes place."
During the news conference, Kaptur railed against Lucas County's history of being late to report votes, decried the lack of vote dropboxes for the large county, and encouraged voters to be both prompt and persistent when it comes to making their vote count.
"We are often the last county to report in the state of Ohio. It's a public embarrassment every presidential year. What an embarrassment for Ohio that we have these long Early Voting Center lines because there aren't enough workers," she said. "But remember what Michelle Obama said - take your lunch. Bring something to eat.
"When you receive your absentee ballot in the mail, fill it out promptly and fill it out carefully. You can file the ballot, even though this is a small box, it is open 24 hours a day. We need a bigger box. We wanted one that's disabled accessible, and look what they gave us - it's outrageous.
"People should feel free to mail it through the postal service. Because it's getting mailed late, do it promptly," Kaptur said.