COLUMBUS — Ohio House Republicans Tuesday took the unprecedented step of repealing a controversial election reform law that had qualified for a November voter referendum.
The move followed collapse of last-minute negotiations over the possible voluntary withdrawal of the referendum from the ballot.
"There's no reason to go ahead with the election," said Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati). "We can save the taxpayers at least $1 million."
The reform law's provisions include limitations on early and absentee voting.
The courts are likely to be the final arbiter on whether legislative repeal of House Bill 194 can yank from the ballot a certified voter referendum championed largely by Democrats and backed by President Obama's re-election campaign.
"There's nothing this General Assembly can do to stop this," Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky) said.
"What we're doing is asking the people of this state to cast a meaningless vote. … If they get enough signatures to get it on the ballot, we'll just take it off so they don't get a chance to express their ire. … We discourage people in the future from taking advantage of their initiative and referendum right."
The House voted 54-42, with Republicans Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Jarrod Martin of Beavercreek joining all Democrats in opposition. The bill now goes to Gov. John Kasich, who supports the repeal.
The fight has placed Republicans in the position of using only their votes to repeal a law that they originally passed solely with their votes. It placed Democrats in the equally awkward position of fighting to prevent the legislative repeal of a law they argued would disenfranchise elderly, minority, and urban voters who might be more inclined to vote for Democrats.
Republicans argued that a repeal now would give Democrats exactly what they would have had if the referendum is successful on Nov. 6. But Democrats countered that the repeal would not be complete because a portion of House Bill 194 had been inserted into a separate law that was not subjected to a referendum petition effort.
That provision prohibits in-person early voting on the three days immediately preceding the election. The committee behind the referendum effort made restoration of those early voting days a condition of their support to voluntarily pull the question from the ballot.
"This does not put the law back to the way it was," House Minority Leader Armond Budish (D., Beachwood) said.
Among its provisions, House Bill 194 would reduce the windows for absentee and early voting, prohibit counties from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, and eliminate the so-called "Golden Week," a five-day period in which would-be voters could register to vote and then immediately cast absentee ballots.
It also creates statewide standards for the counting of last-resort provisional ballots and drops a requirement that a poll worker direct someone standing in the wrong line in a multiprecinct voting place to the right line instead of simply handing him a provisional ballot that probably wouldn't be counted.
The law and specifically the referendum have become mired in presidential election politics. Two weeks ago, Republicans halted a vote on the repeal when Democrats offered to negotiate the voluntary withdrawal of the question from the ballot. But the talks fell apart.
"The point is, the folks who signed this petition, those electors, don't want this to be the law of Ohio," said Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima). "That's what's going to happen when we repeal this law. Why is it that the folks objecting to this don't want this pulled from the ballot?"
He pointed to the support the referendum has received from the Obama campaign, which has even used it as a fund-raising tool. "Is that who should be telling us what to do? [Obama campaign adviser] David Axelrod?" he asked. "I don't think so."