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Friday, August 22, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 11/21/2013

EDITORIALS

Right to vote

Ohio lawmakers should work to increase turnout at the polls, not to suppress voters they disdain

As this year’s session of the General Assembly plods to its end, state lawmakers are pursuing the traditional practice of trying to ram bad bills through at the last minute in the hope no one’s paying attention. Once again, members of the legislature’s Republican majority appear to want to engage in vote suppression on several fronts.

A bill on an especially fast track — introduced just last week, passed by the Senate yesterday — would shave a week off Ohio’s five weeks of early voting before primary and general elections. The measure would eliminate the so-called golden week when Ohioans can register and vote at the same time.

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Whether 35 days of early voting are too many is a valid topic of discussion. Less open to debate, though, is the popularity of early voting in the state: Roughly a third of all votes in last year’s statewide general election were cast before Election Day. Research shows that women, older and poorer voters, people without college degrees, residents of urban counties — and strong Democrats — are more likely to vote early.

There is no added cost for county boards of elections to permit new voters to register and cast their ballots at the same time. The measure’s advocates don’t offer persuasive evidence of irregularities attached to the practice. So the only purpose of the bill appears to be to make it harder for less-favored groups of voters to exercise their franchise.

The fact that a Senate committee held just two truncated hearings on the bill before the full Senate approved it suggests members weren’t especially interesting in examining such issues. But somebody needs to, before this bad legislation goes much farther.

Another Senate bill would prohibit any elected official other than Ohio’s secretary of state from sending voters unsolicited applications for absentee ballots. The bill’s sponsors say it would ensure uniformity in election practices across the state. More likely, it would set a lowest-common-denominator standard that could discourage voting.

True uniformity would require mailing absentee-ballot applications to all voters every year. But the Senate bill would authorize the secretary of state to send out applications only for elections in even-numbered years — and only if the legislature votes to pay for them.

The measure would prohibit election officials from helping most voters to complete absentee applications. It could allow an application or ballot envelope to be thrown out for trivial errors. None of this would improve voter turnout.

Just as noxiously, GOP lawmakers are reviving a measure that would force Ohioans to display state-issued photo identification to vote. Supporters are hardly maintaining the pretense any more that such a law is needed to fight vote fraud — which doesn’t exist.

More than 5.6 million Ohioans participated in last year’s general election. But Secretary of State Jon Husted reported last May that just 135 cases of possible fraud were forwarded to law enforcement agencies for investigation. A photo-ID law would not have prevented most of those alleged incidents, Mr. Husted said.

Opponents of the bill before the House argue that providing official photo identification to the estimated 20 percent of Ohio voters who don’t have it could cost the state as much as $10 million over four years. They argue that those who lack such identification are disproportionately elderly, female, black, and students — groups that tend to vote Democratic.

Other election-reform proposals — such as modernizing voter registration, especially by putting it online, and creating electronic poll books — are more useful. But such measures should not be allowed to provide cover for GOP lawmakers’ efforts to make it harder for Ohioans they disdain to vote.



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