Whenever the General Assembly moves to change Ohio’s election laws, anyone who is interested in making voting more accessible and convenient, and in increasing voter participation, should get nervous.
It’s not that lawmakers shouldn’t try to improve the system. During last November’s presidential election, some Ohio voters had to stand in line for hours on Election Day.
More than 200,000 ballots were thrown into a provisional purgatory. Poorly trained poll workers referred too many voters to the wrong location. The state needs to clarify and expand its rules for early voting.
But GOP-sponsored election “reforms” have too often turned into thinly veiled attempts to suppress votes. Last year, for example, state election officials sought to limit to members of the military early in-person voting on the three days before Election Day. A lawsuit by President Obama’s re-election campaign led to a federal court ruling that opened last-minute early voting to all.
But restrictions on night and weekend early voting before the final weekend were allowed to stand. Even so, more than 100,000 Ohioans voted in person during the last three days of early voting — many of them minority and urban voters who tend to vote Democratic.
Given the demographics, attempts by Republicans to restrict voting might seem logical, but it’s a rear-guard strategy that will ultimately backfire. Political parties win elections by competing for votes, not suppressing them.
A range of bills introduced or proposed this legislative session would, among other things, shorten the window for early voting, restrict absentee and early voting hours, require photo identification at the polls, eliminate February and August special elections, and permit online voter registration.
A few of the emerging proposals and ideas have merit. Narrowing from 35 to 17 days the window during which voters can cast absentee and early ballots may be appropriate. Allowing voters to register online, with necessary safeguards, has worked in other states.
Other proposals, however, are unnecessary and even dangerous. Limiting in-person absentee voting to weekday business hours, and prohibiting such voting on the Monday before the election, would restrict voter access, especially for those without flexible work hours.
Another proposal that would eliminate February and August special elections, typically used for local property tax levies, could put strapped local municipalities in a bind.
Finally and worst of all, some Republican lawmakers want to revisit requiring photo identifications at the polls — the 21st-century equivalent of the poll tax.
As many as 11 percent of Ohioans, roughly 940,000 residents, lack a driver’s license or other state-issued identification. Many of them are seniors, poor people, students, and minorities — groups that tend to vote Democratic.
That aspect of that GOP plan sounds like yet another attempt at voter suppression masquerading as reform. Ohio’s elected representatives should not go down that road again.