COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offices in a former Kohl’s department store here look inconsequential enough — linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and cookie-cutter furniture. But what happens in this strip mall, and other equally nondescript settings nationwide, could in fact be crucial to the struggle over America’s voting laws and apparatus — a struggle that may go a long way toward determining the outcome of next November’s presidential election.

The Franklin County Board of Elections moved to the north side of this capital city last year after using the site in 2012 to accommodate the rush of people who cast their ballots during Ohio’s early voting period. But that early voting policy is still not set in stone — its duration and details have been stretched and squeezed repeatedly over the past few years by both state law and court order, part of a bitter clash between Democrats and Republicans over access to the ballot, electoral integrity and resources. 

Meanwhile, some 80 miles to the north, in the rolling farmland of Ohio’s Amish Country, the Holmes County Board of Elections is engaged in a separate but related conflict, strategically pinching pennies and holding off purchases of printers and other items in hopes the county can scrounge together a few hundred thousand dollars to replace its aging voting machines.

From Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo to Dayton, the stories are similar. Most of the Buckeye State’s 88 counties share these election-related dilemmas, and that’s critically important, since no presidential candidate has won the nation without winning Ohio since 1960. After a thin margin of error and widespread dysfunction at the polls tarnished election results here in 2004, state lawmakers enacted a series of reforms. But over the past few years, Republicans have been chipping away at many of those changes. GOP leaders say they’re simply trying to guarantee uniformity and prevent voter fraud, but voting rights advocacy groups say the recent changes threaten to bring back problems from the past, and may really be driven by an effort to suppress voter turnout.

Meanwhile, Ohio leaders are largely ignoring what a bipartisan federal panel called an “impending crisis”: voting equipment that’s at least a decade old and in need of replacement.

And Ohio is far from alone. Politicians and advocates are waging similar battles across the country, where state legislatures continue to fight over the rules  — voting hours and required identification — and argue over money to replace broken down voting equipment.

But the stakes may be highest here, in perhaps the most important of swing states on the national electoral map. With voting laws in flux and funding a constant struggle nationwide, two central questions remain just 14 months before Election Day: who will be able to vote, and will all their votes be counted accurately?