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Analysis: Ohio GOP legislators fast-track election law changes, despite opposition

a person with their back to the camera sits at a table filling out a voter ballot
Michael Conroy
/
AP
An Ohio voter fills out a ballot as voting continued at the Meadowbook Golf Club in Clayton, Ohio Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

The Republicans who rule the roost in the Ohio Statehouse have developed quite a habit recently of creating legislative solutions in search of an actual problem.

Since the Nov. 8 election, during the lame-duck session of the 134th Ohio General Assembly, legislators and at least one statewide elected official have come up with ideas that many see as nothing more than a power grab by a political party that already controls almost every nook and cranny of Ohio government.

Now, there are two bills on fast-track in the Ohio House and Senate which voting rights groups say would, in many cases, make it harder for people to vote.

Is it another power grab? Or a necessary cleaning up of Ohio election law aimed at reducing the risk of voter fraud?

Some of the changes Republican legislators want to see include:

  • Eliminating early voting at boards of elections on the Monday before an election — a day which often sees a crush of people showing up to vote.
  • No longer allowing employees at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles to update voter information or ask people if they want to register to vote. There would be no more handing out of voter registration forms when people come into BMV offices.
  • Utility bills or bank statements could no longer be used as voter identification. The Senate version of the bill prohibits it and requires state-issued photo IDs — driver's licenses, state photo IDs — in order to vote.
  • State law would no longer explicitly say that voters who are physically unable to enter a polling place can vote curbside.
  • It would end the practice that has been used since 2012 by Ohio Secretaries of State of mailing out unsolicited absentee voter registration forms to millions of Ohio voters.
  • The legislation would change the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot from three days before the election to seven days.
  • A maximum of three secure drop boxes for absentee ballots on county board of elections property. Right now, all 88 counties can have just one. Voting rights advocates in Ohio have argued for years the state should follow the lead of many other cities and counties and have multiple drop boxes not confined to the board of elections to make it easier for voters to turn in their ballots without paying postage.

The two bills — House Bill 294, sponsored by State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, and Senate Bill 320, sponsored by State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green — will sail through the Republican super-majority in the legislature and become law.

There's no stopping this machine once it's in high gear.

And if, for some reason, it doesn't pass in the lame-duck session, it will surely be reintroduced when the 135th Ohio General Assembly takes over in January.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, has testified in one of the few legislative hearings being held on the bills.

"This legislation makes it more complicated for voters; it does nothing to make voting easier," Miller told WVXU. "Our election system is the bedrock of democracy. Big changes like this should not be rushed through in a lame-duck session."

Seitz told WVXU that the end result of the legislative process will be "common sense solutions that will make things easier for voters."

One provision, Seitz said, would allow anyone to apply for an absentee ballot online — instead of getting a printed application, filling it out and mailing it back to the county board of elections.

"That's also a good reason for not having the secretary of state mail out applications," Seitz said. "If everyone can apply for an absentee ballot online, what's the point in the secretary of state mailing out millions of paper applications?"

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said that argument misses the point.

"There are many people who don't go online or don't have access to the internet," Turcer said. "Many seniors would never do that. Access to computers and the internet is not universal. Getting a paper application in the mail could make voting a lot easier for many people."

But what sticks in the craw of many of the voting rights organizations opposed to the legislation is the provision that would do away with early voting at boards of elections on the Monday before the election.

"People tend to procrastinate," Turcer said. "They turn out in large numbers on that day. There seems to be no good reason to take that away."

In Hamilton County alone, 2,745 people voted at the board of elections on the Monday before the Nov. 8 election. That made it the third busiest day of the 28-day early voting period. And it was a short day — the polling place at the board was only open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

"At the very least, we would like to convince the legislature, if they want to eliminate that day, to allocate those days to the Saturday and Sunday before the election," Turcer said.

"It's sort of like closing the store on Christmas Eve," she added.

Another provision that is inexplicable to the opponents is taking away curbside voting for those physically unable to enter a polling place. It doesn't happen that much, but inside poll workers are allowed to go to a vehicle and allow those persons to vote.

"That is particularly offensive," Miller said. "Why should those people be targeted?"

Seitz pointed out that all polling places in Ohio are required to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"You don't want curbside voting to become popular," Seitz said. "This is not a '50s drive-in with a carhop on roller skates bringing you a cheeseburger and a milkshake. These are polling places."

Another provision of the legislation came as a result of the passage of Issue 2 in the November election that will prevent non-citizens from voting in state and local elections.

Ohio BMV offices, Seitz said, would note on driver's licenses or photo IDs if a person is not a citizen.

"So, let's say a British citizen is here and gets an Ohio driver's license," Seitz said. "If Lord Fauntleroy decides to try to use that license for voter ID, he will be turned down, because his driver's license will say that he is not a citizen.

"It's just complying with a law passed by over 70% of the voters," he added, referring to the recently passed Ohio Issue 2.

If the Republicans in the legislature decide they want all of these changes to Ohio election law, they will get them. They have more than enough votes to pass the legislation without a single vote from a Democratic legislator.

When your state has one-party government, you get only what that party wants.

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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.