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Lines long as early voting begins

NORWOOD — Long lines developed early and stayed that way at election boards as early voting began Tuesday in Ohio, which again was in play as a potential swing state, but this time in a pandemic-altered election.

Hundreds waited outside board offices in Hamilton, Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, which serve voters from the three biggest cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, respectively. Several elections officials statewide noted unusually heavy turnout for the first day of early voting.

In Columbus, the line snaked about a quarter-mile along the front and around the back of the Franklin County Board of Elections on the city’s north side.

Mike Master, 64, a Columbus pipefitter, said he planned to vote for President Donald Trump — “twice if I could.”

“He improved the economy and it’s obvious,” Master said. He acknowledged the president can be offensive, but added, “He’s a good leader.”

Also in Columbus, college student George Theofylaktos, 21, of Columbus, said he was apolitical until he got a notification inviting him to a Black Lives Matter rally earlier this year.

He carried a wooden bullet with which he said he was shot by Columbus police.

“I got shot by Columbus police four times so, as you can imagine, if I don’t vote, what am I doing out here?” said Theofylaktos, who planned to vote for Democrat Joe Biden.

Late Tuesday, election officials in Franklin County — home to the state’s capital and largest city, Columbus — said some county voters received the wrong absentee ballots in the mail, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

A setting in some of the board’s software was disabled, resulting in the wrong ballots going into envelopes for some county voters, Ed Leonard, elections board director, told the paper. The extent of the problem wasn’t clear Tuesday.

In Cleveland, Sharm Starks, 36, and Warren Clark, 42, stood in line with Clark’s 3-year-old daughter, Lola, joined by hundreds of others. Clark, of Cleveland Heights and a supporter of Biden, said he decided to vote early because he feared voter suppression and possible intimidation by poll watchers on Nov. 3.

Other communities big and small also saw turnout higher than years past.

“We’re seeing more than normal. Exponentially more,” Julie Stahl, elections board director in Wayne County, told The Times-Gazette. She called the nearly 300 people who voted by noon “unprecedented.” In nearby Holmes County, the heart of Ohio Amish country, nearly 90 people voted during the morning.

Voting in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, was taking place in a voting center that more than doubles the space of the usual voting center in the same complex in suburban Norwood. Disinfectants and masks will be offered to voters, and 6-feet spacing is marked for lines.

Most voters wore masks and bundled up against chilly morning temperatures.

“It is my duty as an American to vote,” said Candice Matthews-Brackeen, a Biden supporter who was first in line in Hamilton County. A tech investor, the 42-year-old Matthews-Brackeen said women’s issues and marriage equality were among her priorities. She criticized Republican President Donald Trump for not helping families during his time in office.

Sherry Poland, county elections director, said authorities feel “well-prepared” and expect strong turnout in a hotly contested presidential election year with Trump trying to carry Ohio again and to win a second term against Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden. But they can’t be certain about what to expect.

“We don’t have a history of conducting a presidential election during a pandemic,” she told reporters Monday. This will be the fifth presidential election Poland has worked.

Nearby, at a rally at a Trump-Pence field office near the Hamilton County voting center in Norwood, Trump supporter Tuesday Hanavan, 47, said she was impressed with everything the president has done. “He’s kept all his promises. He’s put America first.”

After Trump’s decisive 8-point victory in Ohio in 2016, polling indicates the state will again be in play. No president has been elected without carrying Ohio since 1960.

Officials are hoping Ohioans will take advantage of early voting between now and the Nov. 3 election day. Besides weekday voting, early voting will be available the last two weekends before the election. Officials also urge those voting by mail not to wait until the final days, risking their vote arriving on time to get counted if the Postal Service is running slowly.

“Please don’t wait until the last minute,” said Gwen McFarlin, an elections board member and chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party. “We just don’t know.”

On Monday, Ohio’s secretary of state adjusted his one-box-per-county restriction to approve counties collecting absentee ballots both at their buildings and at locations outside, an update to an order that landed him in both state and federal court.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose called his revised order a “clarification” in a case that has highlighted the interest in access to ballot drop boxes amid coronavirus concerns, cuts at the U.S. Postal Service and Trump’s baseless assertions that mail-in voting is rigged.

LaRose said his order always allowed Ohio’s 88 county boards to collect ballots at various locations around their own property — though that is not how Democrats and voting rights groups who sued had interpreted it. It is often the more urban, Democrat-heavy counties that lean toward drop boxes.

The new directive requires Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections to accept absentee ballots around the clock at secure receptacles at their central offices and also clears them to set up “convenient drive-through ballot drop offs” outside.

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Carr Smyth reported from Columbus. Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report. Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell and Julie Carr Smyth at https://www.twitter.com/jsmyth.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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