As soon as today, the Republican-controlled state House will start voting on its latest effort to suppress the votes of substantial numbers of Ohioans. A package of bills before the House would make it harder to vote among citizens whom GOP politicians would rather keep away from the polls.
Proposed measures, in various stages of legislative approval, would reduce Ohio’s 35-day period of early voting before primary and general elections by at least a week, and possibly by more than half. One bill would eliminate the ability to register and vote early at the same time. Another would ban early voting on the final weekend before an election.
The legislation would prohibit anyone other than Ohio’s secretary of state, the state’s chief elections officer, from sending unsolicited applications for absentee ballots to registered voters — and even then, the General Assembly would have to agree to spend money on such a mass mailing. No other public official or entity, such as Lucas County, could take that step. So much for state lawmakers’ often-expressed allegiance to local control.
The absentee ballot bill, which the Senate has approved, prohibits ballots submitted with “incomplete” information from being counted, without defining that term. Instead, local elections officials would make that determination as they go along, on their own.
The measure does not require county boards of elections to tell voters how much postage they must use when they return an absentee ballot. Guess wrong, and you’re out of luck.
The package also makes it harder to count provisional ballots, which are cast when local elections boards challenge certain voters’ registration information. One measure absolves poll workers of responsibility for ensuring that provisional ballots are filled out correctly. At the same time, it reduces from 10 to seven days the amount of time a voter has to “perfect” a provisional ballot that has incomplete or incorrect information, however trivial or inadvertent the lapse.
Advocates assert that the legislation is needed to prevent vote fraud. That argument would be more credible if those who make it could point to specific examples of fraud in Ohio voting that their measures would prevent. But they can’t offer evidence of systematic fraud, because it doesn’t exist.
These bad measures aren’t as blatant as the poll taxes and literacy tests that Southern elections officials used during the civil rights era a half-century ago to keep African-Americans from voting. But their effect is largely, and intolerably, the same, and their approval would seem to invite court challenges under federal voting rights law.
Academic studies show that people who vote early or by absentee ballot tend to be women, racial and ethnic minorities, older and poorer voters, those without college degrees, and residents of urban counties. That is, people who are more likely to vote Democratic.
Lawmakers could enact proposals that would improve Ohio’s voting procedures, such as Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted’s call for online voter registration. Instead, they adopt measures that shape the procedures to partisan ends.
Opponents of these assaults on Ohioans’ voting rights are offering what they call “witness” this week at the Statehouse. In an election year, other voters whose franchise hasn’t been suppressed — yet — also need to pay attention.