COLUMBUS - A month after voters soundly rejected sweeping changes to Ohio's election system largely pushed by Democrats, Republicans are poised this week to enact their own idea of reform.
Voters would be forced for the first time to show some form of identification before casting a ballot. It will become tougher to get petition-driven issues on the ballot, and caps will be enacted for the first time on how much county and municipal officials may accept in campaign contributions from employees.
"These are much more modest changes, but I was surprised the Republicans wanted to pursue further election reform given the solid rejection of the [Reform Ohio Now proposals]," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
The debate further demonstrated the split between Democrats and Republicans on what reforms they believe are needed, and again exposed a nerve in the battle between Republican titans running for governor next year.
The Senate and House may forward it to Gov. Bob Taft before recessing for the holidays on Wednesday. Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said the governor would sign it in its current form.
The new provisions would be in place in time to affect next year's primary election when governor, U.S. Senate, and other statewide offices will be on the ballot.
Ohio would join 22 other states, including neighboring Indiana and Kentucky, in passing some form of identification requirement going beyond what the federal Help America Vote Act requires for first-timer voters in federal elections.
"This is going to add some time to voting. It just is," said Lucas County Elections Director Jill Kelly. "Whether I think it's a good idea or not, we'll have to follow whatever the law is. We'll do our best and, if it takes longer, we'll try to do something to help speed it up."
Under current law, poll workers compare the signature of a voter to that provided when the voter first registered. House Bill 3 would instead require voters to show a photo ID such as a driver's license, or a utility bill, paycheck, or government document showing the voter's name and current address.
If a voter cannot or will not produce such identification, he could provide the last four digits of his Social Security number or sign an affidavit swearing he is who he says he is. He would then be handed a provisional ballot that would be counted later only if the information checks out.
Seven states mandate photo IDs only and two, Georgia and Indiana, limit the choices only to government-issued photo IDs with no default opportunity of signing an affidavit to at least get a provisional ballot.
"If Ohio had required government-issued photo IDs, it certainly would face a lawsuit alleging the requirement denies equal protection and violates the Voters Rights Act," said Dan Tokaji, an assistant law professor specializing in election law at the Ohio State University law school.
"There's a good chance a court would have struck a photo ID requirement down," he said. A federal court has already placed the Georgia law on hold. Indiana's doesn't go into effect until Jan. 1.
Despite a provision requiring Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's office to launch a program educating voters of the new requirements, Democrats contend some voters will show up unprepared at the polls and will object to being handed what they characterize as a "second-class ballot."
"We would have even longer lines," said Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo). "More people will be discriminated against, and more people will be upset that they couldn't get to the official ballot that would be counted first."
Sen. Randy Gardner, (R., Bowling Green), noted a federal commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and James Baker, secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, recommended a photo ID requirement.
"Jimmy Carter is not for discouraging voting," he said. "He's for fair and honest elections and encouraging participation. He's for photo ID. We can debate the question of voter ID, but I think it's been really unfortunate that Democrats have questioned the motives of voter ID."
As for potentially longer lines, he noted that the General Assembly has already passed a law allowing voters to cast absentee ballots as early as 35 days before an election without having to provide a reason why. That, he said, should mean fewer voters showing up in person on Election Day.
The bill would also for the first time cap how much elected county and municipal officials may accept in campaign contributions from government employees to $200 each over their terms.
Although local officials have long been barred from soliciting contributions from workers, they, unlike their state counterparts, are permitted to accept unsolicited contributions.
Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Dayton) had initially sought an outright ban on such contributions.
"For the first time, we'll offer real protection to those who feel - whether or not they are valid fears - that they are expected or required to contribute to their boss, or that they'll lose their job if they don't, or lose a promotion, or a salary increase...," he said.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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