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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 2/20/2014

Ohio lawmakers approve bills that put limits on early voting

Democrats threaten lawsuit if Kasich signs the legislation

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — A pair of bills cutting early voting days and imposing new restrictions on absentee ballots are headed to Gov. John Kasich’s desk along with a promise from Democrats that they’ll sue in federal court if the Republican governor signs them into law.

“I caution the governor of the state, I caution this body, that the cost of litigation will be borne by the residents and taxpayers of this state as they were with each and every action that has been filed and each and every action that has been won,” said state Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawaba Island), who is chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

“The party has never filed an action since 2005 that we have lost — ever,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Dovilla (R., Berea), who chaired the committee that reported the bills, issued a “plea” to Democrats that they avoid “such inflammatory language as voter suppression, racism, and similar over-the-top charges.”

“Making common-sense adjustments to the electoral process in order to ensure public policy imperatives as fairness, integrity, and good stewardship of limited public resources does not constitute an effort to prevent any duly registered voter from exercising his or her constitutional right to the franchise,” he said. “Such accusations are not only false on their face, but are intellectually lazy and highly offensive.”

Debate turned contentious and eventually devolved into shouting when Republicans used their majority to cut off debate.

Solely with Republican votes, the House voted 59-37 to approve Senate Bill 238, sponsored by Sen. Frank LaRose (R., Fairlawn) to shave six to seven days, depending on the calendar, from the current window during which voters may cast absentee ballots by mail or in person prior to the election.

The move eliminates the so-called “Golden Week,” created by the current overlap of the 35-day absentee voting window and the 30-day pre-election registration deadline. That created a six-day period during which someone could register to vote and immediately cast an absentee ballot that would be counted once the registration checks out.

The bill does not address the hours that boards of election may remain open for early voting.

The House also voted 60-38 to approve Senate Bill 205, sponsored by Sen. Bill Coley (R., West Chester) to bar any public official except the secretary of state from mass mailing applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters. Even then, the mailing could occur only in even-numbered years and if lawmakers appropriate the money.

The bill also increases the information that would-be voters must supply on absentee ballot applications and envelopes in order for the ballots to be counted. Democrats contended the changes will lead to more ballots being disqualified for innocent paperwork errors.

“Ohio is better than the national average in every respect [with respect to absentee voting],” Rep. Mike Duffey (R., Worthington) said. “That is the end of the argument.”

The Republican-controlled Senate last night, along party lines, approved House changes to the bills and sent them to Mr. Kasich.

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, which has faltered so far in its attempt to get a proposed Ohio Voter Bill of Rights constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot, called in vain for a moratorium on such bills until voters can weigh in. They’ve argued that the election changes would disproportionately affect urban and minority voters.

“In 2014, I never imagined that I would be in a statehouse trying to fight for the rights to vote,” said state Rep. Alicia Reece (D., Cincinnati), caucus chairman.

At least one more election-related bill is in the pipeline. The House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee, chaired by Mr. Dovilla, on Wednesday put off until next week a vote on a bill that would also increase the field of information required on last-resort provisional ballots in order for those to be counted.

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



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