COLUMBUS — With a presidential election behind them, Ohio lawmakers passed several bills today to make changes to the battleground state's election laws.
One measure was more contentious than the other: It would restrict the time groups have to collect the extra signatures needed to make sure their ballot questions get before voters.
Under the proposal, groups couldn't gather additional signatures until the secretary of state notifies them whether their initial petitions have fallen short.
Current law already allows groups 10 days to file any added signatures once they get notification from the state's elections chief. But campaigns typically continue to collect signatures after they submit their initial petitions to maximize their time to get additional names. That time has varied, depending on how long it takes election officials to certify that the initial signatures are from valid Ohio voters.
Supporters say they want groups to have the same amount of time to gather extra signatures, while opponents argue the bill erodes Ohioans referendum and ballot initiative rights.
State Rep. Mike Dovilla, a Berea Republican, said the measure gives everyone equal time to get an issue on the ballot regardless of their political leanings.
Dovilla said all Ohioans would get the constitutionally required 90 days to collect signatures for a referendum and 10 additional days to gather the insufficient signatures "no matter what group you belong to, no matter what the issue is at hand, and no matter which individual from whatever political party happens to occupy the office of secretary of state."
State Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent, called the bill "a solution in search of a problem."
Clyde said the measure makes it more difficult for people to bring about a ballot question and opens the state up to litigation.
"The right to referendum is a very important check the people have to push back on abuses of this Legislature," Clyde said. "This bill is a direct attack on that sacred right."
The Republican-controlled House approved the measure on a 56-37 vote, and the GOP-led Senate signed off on that chamber's revisions. It now heads to Republican governor's desk.
Democrats were successful in gathering enough signatures to ask voters to overturn GOP-backed collective bargaining restrictions in 2011. The party also circulated petitions in an effort to toss out changes to the state's election laws, though the Legislature repealed the measure and the issue never went before voters last year.
State Rep. Chris Redfern, who's also the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said the party would overcome any difficulties in the referendum process.
"We'll gather up the signatures necessary," Redfern said. "We'll succeed."
Secretary of State Jon Husted, the state's top election official, said the bill provides needed guidance on how long petitioners have to get the extra signatures.
Husted, a Republican, said his office didn't initiate the changes nor have a role in writing the bill. But he said he supported having clarity on the referendum process, which he thought could help protect the state from legal challenges.
"We just want it to be fair for everybody — fair and equal," Husted said in a telephone interview with the AP.
He said he didn't have a position on how much time petitioners should have to collect the added signatures.
A bill aimed at improving access to the polls for disabled voters cleared the Legislature today with more bipartisan support.
The measure would require polling locations to be compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Early voters could cast ballots even if they are still waiting in line when a polling place closes. It also would ensure that blind, disabled or illiterate voters may be helped in marking their ballots and that journalists have reasonable access to polling locations during an election.