COLUMBUS — A House committee on Tuesday voted along party lines to approve a pair of bills shortening the time frame for early voting and prohibiting every public official except the secretary of state from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to voters.
The bills, which have already passed the Senate, now go to the full House.
Republicans argued that the bills will put all counties on the same page when it comes to election operation, will save them money, and will reduce possible fraud.
Democrats countered that the bills are unnecessary roadblocks thrown in the paths of urban, elderly, minority, and poor voters, and will increase the chances that people either won’t vote or won’t have their votes ultimately counted.
Rep. Andrew Brenner (R., Powell) balked when Democrats on the House Policy and Oversight Committee tried to restore authorization for counties and other officials from mass-mailing applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters.
“You’re definitely creating a disproportional voter turnout in certain areas over others…,” he said. “If you’re sending out absentee ballots, you send it out either to everybody or nobody…”
Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D., Kent) said the bills do not address the real problems of Ohio’s elections.
“We throw out thousands of provisional ballots, thousands of absentee ballots,” she said. “We’re not following various federal laws…We’re number one in the number of voters that we purge (from registration rolls)…We don’t have a problem in Ohio with too much early voting.”
The measures are among a handful of voting-change bills moving separately through the General Assembly, the opposite of what occurred two years ago when Republicans passed a sweeping law only to later repeal it to avoid a Democratic-led ballot referendum on it.
Senate Bill 238, sponsored by Sen. Frank LaRose (R., Fairlawn), would narrow the window during which voters may cast absentee ballots in person and by mail. It would eliminate the so-called “Golden Week,” the overlap of the absentee voting window opening 35 days before an election and the close of registration 30 days before the election.
That overlap, which both Republicans and Democrats have questioned at some point, creates a six-day period during which would-be voters can register and immediately cast a ballot. Depending on the calendar, the bill would reduce the early voting period to 28 or 29 days.
The bill does not address early voting hours. Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, has urged lawmakers to set a uniform schedule for boards of elections in all 88 counties.
Also approved was Senate Bill 205, sponsored by Sen. Bill Coley (R., West Chester), which would prohibit any public official or employee except the secretary of state from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters. The secretary of state could do it only if the General Assembly appropriates the money.
The bill also increases the field of required information that voters must provide with absentee ballots in order for the vote to count. Should the board of elections discover an error, the voter would have a seven-day opportunity to correct it.