As the presidential election headed into the final stretch in late summer, counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania worried that a deluge of absentee ballot requests would swamp their printing capacity. So dozens of them contracted with Midwest Direct, a Cleveland mailing company.
But when it came time to print and ship Ohio ballots early last week, it was Midwest Direct that was overwhelmed. Several Ohio counties that expected absentee ballots printed by the company to land in voters’ mailboxes are now scrambling to print them themselves or find a last-minute contingency plan less than three weeks before Election Day.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, nearly 30,000 ballots sent to voters in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, went to the wrong addresses.
The counties had provided the company with lists of tens of thousands of requests weeks in advance. The company’s inability to meet demand has underscored the stress that mail voting has put on the nation’s election process as the coronavirus pandemic curtails in-person voting. Midwest Direct is the primary outside provider of absentee ballots for 16 Ohio counties, though many also have their own in-house operations.
Midwest Direct is owned by two brothers: Richard Gebbie, the chief executive, and James Gebbie, the chair. This summer they began flying a Trump 2020 flag above Midwest Direct’s headquarters on the west side of Cleveland. It was a curious juxtaposition — a company in the business of distributing absentee ballots through the mail showing a preference for a president who has spent months denigrating the practice of voting by mail.
“We have freedom to vote for who we want and support who we want,” Richard Gebbie said in an interview last month. “We fly a flag because my brother and I own the company, and we support President Trump.”
Gebbie said he didn’t “have an opinion” on Trump’s false claims that voting by mail was corrupt and rife with fraud, but he emphasized that the ballots his company mailed met strict security standards.
“The security in the vote-by-mail process both in how we process and how the counties handle the ballots is very secure,” he said.
Distribution of the ballots is another matter. When it came time to actually ship the forms, the Gebbies’ company found an array of counties angry that they did not receive ballots as promised.
There is no evidence Midwest Direct has done anything improper with the ballots. Election security experts said there was little any vendor could do to tamper with the integrity of absentee ballots.
Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser for elections at public policy foundation the Democracy Fund and a former elections administrator in Arizona, said ballots are printed without regard of which voter will receive them, and mailers like Midwest Direct do not have access to the partisan attributes of specific voters.
When Midwest Direct failed to deliver promised ballots to some of its Ohio clients, Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state, recommended that counties begin printing ballots in house or “develop a contingency plan,” said Jon Keeling, LaRose’s spokesperson.
“They overpromised and underdelivered,” said Diane Noonan, director of the Butler County Board of Elections. “We would get different answers from different people we talked to. Was I happy with it? No, I was not.”
With Midwest Direct unable to deliver ballots to Butler County, a suburb of 383,000 people north of Cincinnati, Noonan on Tuesday decided to print and ship the rest of her county’s ballots in house.
Ohio is once again a battleground state, after Trump carried it by 8 percentage points in 2016. A poll conducted last week for The New York Times and Siena College found former Vice President Joe Biden with a 1-point lead over Trump.
The counties with the biggest volume of delayed absentee ballots are urban and suburban counties with large populations. Summit County, encompassing Akron, and Lucas County, which includes Toledo, were two of just eight Ohio counties to back Hillary Clinton in 2016. Butler County, a historically Republican county, gave 61% of its vote to Trump.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and is Ohio’s second-largest county, also has an absentee ballot contract with Midwest Direct but has had no problems getting its ballots printed and shipped, according to Mike West, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections there.
But some Cuyahoga County voters have reported ballot delays similar to those in other counties.
Pam Ogilvy, a high school social studies teacher from Parma, Ohio, said she requested an absentee ballot in mid-September. The Cuyahoga Board of Elections website first said her ballot would be shipped by Oct. 6, the first day Ohio ballots could be released. A subsequent update said it would be shipped by Oct. 12. Her ballot finally arrived Friday — 10 days after it was first supposed to be mailed.
Ohio ballots can be counted if they are postmarked by Nov. 2, the day before Election Day. They can also be returned in person to a county board of elections before the polls close Nov. 3.
Richard Gebbie declined to be interviewed this week. In a statement released to clients Thursday, he said the delays occurred because counties underestimated the amount of ballots they would need printed.
“It is fair to say today 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,” he said. “The estimates provided to us from the counties were not what ended up as the reality.”
The Trump flag is no longer flying over its headquarters this week.
In Summit County, ballots from Midwest Direct were delayed until Oct. 10, with the rest of the initial batch of 95,000 not mailed until Oct. 12, according to Tom Bevan, a Democrat who sits on the Board of Elections.
In Lucas County, 60,000 ballots that Midwest Direct promised to send Oct. 6 were not mailed until a week later, said Pete Gerken, a county commissioner.
And in Pennsylvania, 28,879 voters in Allegheny County, home to the state’s second-largest concentration of Democratic voters, were sent incorrect ballots as part of a batch of more than 32,000 ballots that were mailed beginning Sept. 28, according to the county Board of Elections.
Gebbie has in recent years made small donations to Republicans running for federal and state office. He gave to LaRose and Dave Yost, the Ohio attorney general.
Online, Gebbie has written several public Facebook posts questioning the potency of the coronavirus, and he criticized Taylor Swift after she accused Trump of seeking to dismantle the Postal Service.
Local officials said Midwest Direct offered a variety of explanations for why the promised absentee ballots were slow to be delivered, from mechanical breakdowns to a higher volume of ballot requests than anticipated. Gerken, the Lucas County commissioner, said there was little communication from Midwest Direct about why absentee ballots were not Toledo-bound.
“We have lost nine to 10 days in the process, and those days are not recoverable,” Gerken said.
For Ohio, the delays in shipping absentee ballots come as LaRose, the Republican secretary of state, has forbidden counties from installing more than one drop box to deposit absentee ballots. The delay in receiving requested ballots has driven more voters to early-voting sites, which are also limited to one per county.
“It’s completely insufficient for a county of this size,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat whose district includes Toledo. “This year voting was supposed to be so much more simple, but it’s more complex.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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