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Your Voice Ohio is a collaborative effort to produce more relevant, powerful journalism based on the needs and ambitions of Ohioans and Ohio communities. Your Voice Ohio is an initiative of WYSO and more than 30 news organizations across Ohio.

In An Unprecedented Election Year, Many Ohioans Worry About The Integrity Of The Voting System

Tim Evanson / Flickr Creative Commons

This summer, WYSO News is featuring a special project designed to hear from everyday Ohioans ahead of November’s presidential election. The project is called Your Voice Ohio and WYSO is among dozens of statewide news outlets participating for a third year in a row. This year is shaping up to be an election year like no other, with millions of Americans out of work, and with social distancing requirements adding extra challenges at the polls.

WYSOs Jess Mador spoke with Dayton Daily News reporter Laura Bischoff, who has covered politics and state government since 1995. She’s also the lead reporter for the first part of the Your Voice Ohio project, sitting in on candid conversations with dozens of Ohioans in communities across the state.

In this interview, she says the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests are a distraction from a presidential race that would typically be front and center this close to Election Day.

What follows is a transcript of the interview edited for length and clarity:

Bischoff: So the presidential race is almost like an afterthought at this point. Normally around now people would be starting to dial in and they would be really involved and engaged. But there have been so many other very pressing important problems that people are dealing with.

Mador: Give us a sense of what you've heard in the Your Voice Ohio forums so far. What are people saying about how their lives have been affected by the pandemic?

Bischoff: Of course, some people had to shift immediately to online learning for their kids. Others said that they've worked at home for a long time. There was a woman, a mother of two in the Cleveland area, who said that she was going to college. She's got two young sons. She got laid off and she said that on top of all that, she developed symptoms of COVID and she wasn't able to get a test because it happened early on when the testing was really restricted. And I think there's probably thousands of Ohioans who have similar stories to that woman's. And then also, when it comes to the Black Lives Matter issues, for some people, these issues of racial justice have been in their minds for a long time. It's been near and dear to their heart. And it's something that they've spent a lot of time thinking about. But for others, it was really the death of George Floyd and the videotape of that death that brought the issue of racial justice to the forefront. And for some of the Black participants in these discussions, they said that they're really heartened to see Blacks and whites, young and old, all protesting against racism and injustice together.

Mador: Yeah, and all of these changes are happening as we approach the elections in November, of course. What are you hearing from Ohioans in these conversations about the election? Are they worried about the need for social distancing and how that could affect voting and turnout?

Bischoff: They're not sure who to trust in the government. All across the state, they really aren't sure how the election is going to go down during the pandemic. You know, like if people don't want to risk it and go to the polls, but they still want to vote, then they'll be requesting absentee ballots. And, typically in Ohio, about one-third of voters vote early or at or by absentee. And this guy was saying, well, what happens if three in four voters want to have absentee ballots? That's an enormous administrative lift for the county boards of elections.

Mador: How prepared is the state's election system for a socially distanced November election?

Bischoff: Well, for one thing, the state lawmakers haven't really agreed on what changes are necessary. If the March primary is any indication of how it's going to go down in November, it's going to be ugly because in the March primary, the polls were closed with less than 12 hours before they were due to open because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then voting was extended through, I think, April 27. That didn't allow for a lot of turnaround time to find a printer, find the form, print it out, fill it out, send it to the Board of Elections. It just didn't allow enough time for the United States Postal Service to work. And I think that there's a risk of that happening again and that people, their votes will not be counted if their ballots are not postmarked the day before the election.

Mador: You've listened in on dozens of conversations with Ohioans from all across the state, from all walks of life across the political spectrum. And as a journalist who's covered Ohio for more than two decades, what do you think is the value of forums like these? This year, of course, these gatherings are taking place online on Zoom instead of in-person. But do you think you're able to hear anything you wouldn't normally hear on the campaign trail?

Bischoff: Well, what's interesting is during political campaigns, you go to a rally for Hillary Clinton or a rally for Donald Trump and you get the true believers who are very invested in the talking points of each campaign. And what this conversation did withvoters from all across the region was have a civil discussion about real issues. And we didn't really capture necessarily the hardcore supporters. We had a lot of people who were kind of in the middle maybe, maybe that elusive undecided independent voter. They're concerned about the economic security for themselves and their fellow Americans. And in general, they want honest leaders to come up with more fixes for really serious problems.

Your Voice Ohio is the largest sustained, statewide media collaborative in the nation. Launched nearly five years ago, more than 60 news outlets have participated in unique, community-focused coverage of elections, addiction, racial equity, the economy and housing. Nearly 1,300 Ohioans have engaged with more than 100 journalists in dozens of urban, rural, and suburban communities across the state. Over and over again, Ohioans have helped journalists understand their perspectives and experiences while sharing ideas to strengthen their local communities and the state. The Democracy Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Facebook are the primary funders of Your Voice Ohio. To learn more about Your Voice Ohio visit www.yourvoiceohio.org. To learn more about the Jefferson Center visit www.jefferson-center.org.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.