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House OKs bill on provisional ballots

Measure would move 2012 Ohio primary to May

COLUMBUS -- In another party-line vote, the House passed a bill Wednesday that Republicans said will simplify and equalize Ohio's elections system.

The bill is aimed at reducing the number of provisional ballots cast, shortening absentee and in-person early voting periods, and restricting circulation of ballot issue petitions.

It would prohibit the practice of Lucas and other mostly urban counties of mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters.

It also would postpone Ohio's presidential primary election from March to May, in part a reaction to the state's failure to redraw congressional and state legislative districts in the wake of last year's U.S. Census.

Democrats, however, accused the majority of doing so at the expense of urban, minority, and low-income voters.

"This is designed to reduce and simplify the provisional ballot process, and by this I mean get rid of the issues before the voter comes on Election Day," said Rep. Robert Mecklenborg (R., Cincinnati), the bill's sponsor.

"The right to vote is probably our most important franchise, and we simply cannot have 88 different counties applying 88 different standards to the registration process, to the voting process, and to the counting process," he said.

"There have already been great disparities, most recently in the last election. Look at the events transpiring in Lucas County and also in Hamilton County, and we see what that can lead to."

In November, Lucas County election officials counted 144 provisional, last-resort ballots that were cast in the right building but at the wrong precinct table.

That changed the results for a county commissioner race and a Springfield school levy and led Secretary of State Jon Husted to remove the top two election officials for ignoring his predecessor's "explicit guidance."

The Republican majority rejected a Democratic amendment that would have required such ballots to be counted if it is determined that the voter was standing at the wrong precinct table because of poll worker error.

"These changes will disenfranchise minorities," Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) said.

"They will disenfranchise the elderly and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. However, from a political standpoint it makes perfect sense. …

"Suppress the vote, especially the early vote to gain a political advantage and consolidate political power," he said. "This bill is bare-knuckled, in-your-face, political hardball, and has absolutely no place in Ohio law."

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is considering its own package of reforms.

The House bill would reduce the period of time during which voters can return absentee ballots and can vote early in person to 21 and 10 days, respectively, down from the current 35.

The change eliminates the so-called Golden Week, a period in which voters could simultaneously register and vote.

But Democrats argued that Republicans went too far, noting that early in-person voting would actually be limited to six days once days in which voting would be prohibited under the bill are taken into consideration.

Among other measures, House Bill 194 would:

Allow voters to update their addresses in the statewide registration database via the Internet.

Eliminate the mandate that a poll worker direct a person in the wrong precinct to the correct precinct.

Prohibit petition circulators for ballot issues from continuing to collect signatures while a filed petition is being scrutinized by county boards of election and the secretary of state.

Prohibit the counting of a provisional ballot cast by someone who does not correctly fill out all the information required on the envelope.

The House, however, adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) to exempt military ballots out of fear such information mailed from overseas could lead to identify theft.

Allow voters who change their names but stay in the same precinct to cast a regular ballot instead of a provisional ballot.

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

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