COLUMBUS - The debate turned heated in the Ohio Senate yesterday over how, or even if, lawmakers should change Ohio's election process during the waning lame-duck session.
Republican and Democratic members of the Senate State and Local Government and Veteran Affairs Committee sparred as the GOP continued to push for a full Senate vote on Tuesday.
The most controversial portion of the bill would eliminate the so-called "Golden Week'' in which overlapping voter registration and absentee voting windows allowed would-be voters to register and cast absentee ballots simultaneously for five days a little more than a month before the November election.
The bill also would force the secretary of state to turn over to local boards of elections a list of registrations in which Social Security numbers, addresses, or other information on the applications does not match information in state and federal databases.
Catherine Turcer of the Ohio Citizen Action government watchdog group urged the committee to slow down.
"It takes time to analyze election administration and identify the best possible solutions," she said. "The results of election 2008 have yet to be officially certified. It is time to be thoughtful and deliberate.''
Committee Chairman Gary Cates (R., West Chester) disputed the contention it would be better to wait until after local boards complete their audits of election results, particularly when dealing with the overlapping deadlines that led to the same-day voting.
"If the secretary has already identified this as a problem, why do we need an audit?'' he asked.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), would eliminate the "Golden Week'' by requiring that voters register at least 30 days before they may cast an absentee ballot. Since current law allows voters to cast absentee ballots as early as 35 days before an election, this would effectively mean the deadline for registration for an absentee voter could be as early as 65 days before the election.
The current 30-day voter registration deadline would remain in place for all people casting ballots in person on Election Day.
Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has suggested reducing the window for absentee and early voting to 20 days before the election, thereby also getting rid of the "Golden Week." The Ohio Association of Election Officials has suggested a 28-day absentee voting window to accomplish the same thing while keeping the 35-day window for military and overseas voters.
Carrie Davis, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the General Assembly could be entering choppy waters by extending the voter registration deadline.
"There are numerous federal laws that come into play here, including the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, as well as several decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that set 30 days prior to Election Day as the maximum cutoff for voter registration," she said.
Mr. Seitz disagreed.
"The way I read the law it's perfectly appropriate to make distinctions between absent voter procedures and in-person voter procedures," he said. "In fact, the [National Voter Registration Act] actually permits a state to require a first-time voter to vote in person only."
Ms. Davis also argued that lawmakers should not require the state's top elections official to send registration mismatches to local boards without first spelling out when a mismatch can justify red-flagging a would-be voter.
Ms. Brunner and Gov. Ted Strickland, both Democrats, have encouraged the Republican-controlled General Assembly not to deal with election reform during the lame-duck session. Ms. Brunner held a postelection summit Tuesday and plans a second in February from which a report with recommendations for reforms is expected to be forwarded to the legislature. But by then, Democrats will have assumed control of the Ohio House, thanks to the Nov. 4 election.
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