COLUMBUS — The Ohio Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to pass a pair of bills shrinking the window during which voters can cast absentee ballots and tightening restrictions around the counting of provisional ballots.
The measures, which passed 21-10, are the latest in a series of reforms the Republican-controlled General Assembly has been moving in piecemeal fashion in advance of the 2014 gubernatorial election, as opposed to the single sweeping elections bill passed in 2011 but repealed under the threat of referendum.
Debate now shifts to the House.
Senate Bill 238 would get rid of the “Golden Week,” the six-day overlap between the deadline for voter registration 30 days before the election and the opening of absentee voting by mail or in person 35 days before the election.
“The specific goal here of my bill was to reduce this overlap … so we don’t have what really amounts to a kind of anomaly where, for the period of five days, people are able to simultaneously register and cast live, not provisional ballots,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Frank LaRose (R., Fairlawn).
He said Ohio would remain a national leader in the time offered for early voting.
Both major political parties have supported Golden Week’s elimination, but Democrats and voting advocates voiced suspicion that the loss of six days is just the beginning of early voting’s erosion in Ohio. Other GOP-backed bills have been introduced recently that call for even shorter early and absentee voting windows.
The bill would open the absentee and early voting period on the first day after the close of voter registration. Depending on the annual calendar, that would be 28 or 29 days before the election.
“[Early voting is] highly popular with voters,” said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Every time cuts to early voting have been proposed or carried out, voters have complained.”
No-fault absentee voting, in which voters can cast early ballots without having to state why they can’t do so on Election Day, was created in the wake of the 2004 presidential election that was plagued by long lines and other problems.
Early and absentee voting became so popular that counties have reduced the number of precincts and Election Day polling places to save money.
“The election ecosystem in Ohio has changed to accommodate the level of early voting we now have,” Ellis Jacobs, of the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition, told the Senate State Government Oversight and Reform Committee.
This bill does not address the days and hours of early voting, the subject of court fights during the 2012 presidential election. Other bills have been introduced, however, to limit county elections boards’ options.
The chamber also passed Senate Bill 216, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), which would expand the information a would-be voter must provide to cast a provisional ballot, the ballot cast when there’s some question about the voter’s eligibility.
The bill adds address and date of birth to the information mandated on a provisional ballot envelope and makes it the voter’s responsibility to provide that information. This would be in addition to the name, signature, and the last four digits of the Social Security number or driver’s license number now required.
A Democratic amendment that would have shifted the responsibility of making sure that information is complete to the poll worker was rejected.
“We are making it the voter’s responsibility for that information and not relying on our overworked and underpaid poll workers to do all of that work,” Mr. Seitz said. “I want that to be the voter’s responsibility. We’re not asking for much.”
The bill, following a pair of 2012 federal court rulings, also allows for the counting of provisional ballots that were cast in the right polling place but in the wrong precinct line. But such ballots would not be counted if the person insists on voting provisionally at the wrong polling place altogether.
Democrats argued that the provisions will lead to the rejection of more provisional ballots.
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