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Published: Thursday, 3/29/2012

Senate votes to repeal law before referendum

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Despite constitutional questions, Senate Republicans on Wednesday forged ahead with repeal of a controversial election-reform law that Democrats had already succeeded in having certified for a November ballot referendum.

"This is the first time in Ohio history where a bill has been passed to stop a referendum,'' Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney (D., Columbus) said. "It's a historic moment of lack of trust in the people of Ohio.''

The Senate voted 23-10 along party lines to pull House Bill 194 from the books with the promise that majority Republicans will be back to talk with Democrats in hopes of reaching a bipartisan compromise.

Democrats remained skeptical, worrying aloud about what will replace the bill, especially if that vote occurs in a postelection, lame-duck session.

Among its numerous provisions, House Bill 194 would severely shorten the pre-election windows for absentee and early voting and prohibit counties from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

It would toughen the rules on counting last-resort provisional ballots and would lift the current requirement that poll workers must inform voters of their error when they insist on voting at the wrong precinct table at multiple-precinct polling locations.

The repeal maneuver placed majority Republicans in the position of killing a law they originally passed solely with their own votes and Democrats in the position of fighting repeal of a law they claim will disenfranchise minority, elderly, college students, and urban voters who are often friendly to Democrats.

Sen. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro) invoked William Shakespeare as she called the fight over the repeal "much ado about nothing.''

"We are repealing that law without the expense of an election,'' she said.

It remains to be seen whether the repeal will be taken up in the GOP-controlled House, where Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) also has some reservations.

"We don't have precedent, so we don't really know this is going to be upheld by the courts or not,'' he said. "We just don't know that.''

He said a decision about whether to take up the bill will be made soon. The House next returns to session on April 18.

The Ohio Ballot Board, which writes the language voters will see on the ballot, has yet to frame the referendum question. Preliminarily, Matt McClellan, spokesman for Speaker of the House Jon Husted, said the belief is that if the law is repealed legislatively before that meeting occurs, there would be no question for the board to write.

"If and when the legislature were to repeal the law, we'll take a closer look at that,'' Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Kearney argued only those who place a referendum on the ballot can remove it once it has been certified.

Opponents of House Bill 194 had gathered 307,358 valid signatures of registered voters, well above the 231,150 needed to qualify for the ballot. That move, much as occurred last year with Senate Bill 5 on organized-labor law, placed the measure on hold pending the outcome of the referendum vote.

Republicans argued that the repeal would put Ohio in exactly the same position that passage of the referendum would accomplish in November -- back where it was before the law's passage last June.

But Democrats countered that a few provisions of House Bill 194 were later copied in separate legislation that was not subjected to a referendum effort. Among those provisions was a prohibition on in-person early voting on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday immediately preceding an election. Republicans rejected a proposed Democratic amendment to undo that restriction also.

Mr. Husted, a Republican, has supported the repeal. He argues that a campaign over the merits and faults of House Bill 194 at the same time that an election is under way using a different set of rules would create voter confusion.

President Obama's re-election campaign supported the referendum effort and is now using the repeal effort as a fund-raising tool.

"Instead of giving Ohio's voters the chance to reject H.B. 194 in November, they want to repeal the law, and we can only imagine what they're primed to replace it with,'' Greg Schultz, state director for Obama for America, wrote in a fund-raising email.

"This Republican majority has put up roadblocks to the early and absentee voting that nearly one-third of Ohioans used to cast their votes in 2008,'' he said.

That email was not lost on Senate Republicans.

"Now we understand why they don't want to repeal the law legislatively and why they don't want to work with us anymore on replacement language,'' Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) said. "Because Obama for America told them, 'Don't do it.' ''

Countered Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland): "I don't need the President of the United States to tell me when and where to stand up for what is right. … We're not the ones who tried to ram this bill down the throat of voters.''

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



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