Lawmakers weigh voting-related bills

Issues include absentee, early hours

The end to early voting in Lucas County in 2011 drew a protest the weekend before the general election outside the Early Voting Center at 13th and Washington streets in Toledo.
The end to early voting in Lucas County in 2011 drew a protest the weekend before the general election outside the Early Voting Center at 13th and Washington streets in Toledo.

COLUMBUS — A series of election-related bills, including another attempt to shorten the window for early voting, is slowly dribbling out at the Statehouse as lawmakers apparently try to avoid one sweeping reform bill.

“It certainly makes it harder to referendum, doesn’t it?” said Peg Rosenfeld, elections specialist for the Ohio League of Women Voters. “Not that I think that’s anybody’s goal.”

Last year, legislative Republicans voluntarily repealed their own controversial House Bill 194, heading off a Democratic-led effort to kill the sweeping election-reform measure at the polls.

A variety of bills this session have been introduced or are in the early stages of seeking co-sponsorship that would, among other things, restrict absentee and early voting hours, require photo identification at the polls, eliminate the February and August special elections typically used for local property tax levies, and permit online voter registration.

All of these, at least at some point, were part of the debate over House Bill 194, even if they didn’t necessarily make the final law. The law, passed solely with Republican votes and signed by GOP Gov. John Kasich, became embroiled in presidential election-year politics.

Even after the law was repealed, small portions lived on in separate legislation to fuel federal court fights that ultimately blocked Ohio’s efforts to shut down in-person voting during the final weekend and Monday immediately preceding the 2012 general election.

Freshman Rep. John Becker, a Clermont County Republican, was not in the Ohio House when the House Bill 194 fight occurred. But he’s touching on some elements of it with a proposal for which he’s seeking his colleagues’ co-sponsorship.

“The problem with our absentee/early voting is that it’s a circus,” he said. “It’s out of control and needs to be reined in. This series of bills, one way or the other, will bring sanity back to our election system.”

There has been some consensus on both sides of the partisan aisle about shortening the window during which voters can cast absentee ballots by mail or in person. That window is currently 35 days before the election.

Part of the goal has been to get rid of the so-called “Golden Week” created when the no-fault absentee voting period was set at 35 days but the deadline for registering to vote was kept at 30 days. That created a brief period when people could walk into a county board of election, register to vote, and cast an absentee ballot on the spot.

Much of the dispute has been over how much to cut back. Mr. Becker would like to close the window for all absentee voting to 17 days before the election, limit in-person absentee voting to weekday business hours, and prohibit such voting on the Monday immediately before the election.

Similar portions of House Bill 194 helped fuel last year’s referendum effort, despite the fact that there was broad support for some other elements of the law.

Mounting a petition effort to allow voters to second-guess a law passed by the General Assembly can cost millions of dollars and must be completed in a limited period of time. It would be more difficult to mount such a campaign on multiple fronts with multiple laws.

Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D., Kent), who has emerged as House Democrats’ front person on voting issues, said a new law passed earlier this year that can make it a bit tougher to gather the signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot seemed to set the stage for what’s to come.

“It’s just a very negative atmosphere whenever we deal with voting issues,” she said. “A lot of trust was lost after the way [House Bill] 194 was rammed through the last time, the tricks that were played with the repeal while they tried to keep the language in on the last three days [of early voting], and all the litigation.

“It’s a tough environment to then go back to the table and work together in good faith,” Ms. Clyde said.

Sen. Frank LaRose (R., Fairlawn) recently introduced a bill that would allow voters to register online, something Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, the state’s top elections official, has sought and the League of Women Voters generally likes.

Mr. LaRose said he hopes that people who fear online registration will become more comfortable with it once they see the safeguards included in the bill and how it has worked in other states.

“It’s more reliable and more efficient in many ways than doing it the old-fashioned way with an 8-by-11 piece of paper and pen and licking an envelope to send it to the county boards of elections,” he said.

Ms. Clyde, however, raised concerns about another portion of that bill that would expressly allow Ohio to share database information with other states, something she fears could lead to more aggressive purging of voters from the Ohio registration rolls.

Meanwhile, Mr. Becker and Rep. John Adams (R., Sidney) recently introduced a bill to eliminate the February and August special elections that are typically used for proposed local property tax levies. Mr. Becker also wants to resurrect the idea of requiring photo identification at the polls.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.