As part of the General Assembly’s usual year-end crush of bad business, the Republican-majority state House is likely to start voting today on a GOP-sponsored package of bills that would have the probable effect — if not the overt intent — of disfranchising voters whom the party would rather keep away from the polls.
Instead of merely delaying action on most of the legislation until next year, House members should kill the bills, which already have been rushed through the GOP-controlled Senate. If they don’t, Republican Gov. John Kasich should veto the measures. But if they become law, Ohioans ought to remember what Columbus has done when they vote in next year’s elections.
The main bill of the package would shave a week off Ohio’s five-week early voting period before primary and general elections. It also would abolish the “golden week” at the start of early voting, when Ohioans can register to vote and cast ballots simultaneously.
The measure’s sponsors say they want to relieve pressure on county boards of elections that must administer voter registration and elections at the same time and to prevent fraudulent voting. But the bill is a solution in search of a problem, because the “evidence” advocates cite of voting irregularities is more anecdotal than systemic. Eliminating the dual activity will simply make it more cumbersome for new voters to exercise their franchise.
A related measure would prohibit any public official other than the secretary of state — Ohio’s chief elections officer — from sending registered voters unsolicited applications for absentee ballots for general elections. The secretary could mail such applications only if the legislature votes to pay for them.
The clear intent is to give lawmakers greater control over the absentee-ballot process to restrict as they see fit. A better approach would be to send ballot applications to all Ohio voters every year.
The bills also unnecessarily would require voters to include more information on both absentee ballots and provisional ones — that is, ballots that are not counted until questions are resolved about the eligibility of the voters who cast them.
Again, supporters say the measures would fight vote fraud that they haven’t shown to exist. More likely, the new rules would make it easier to throw out absentee and provisional ballots on technicalities or for trivial errors.
One measure with greater merit would enable the secretary of state to work more closely with state agencies to check voter rolls against other government databases to keep these records up to date. But the bill also would work to reduce the number of voting machines required at polling places, which could especially affect urban sites that tend to have long lines.
Why would Republican lawmakers want to make voting harder instead of working to increase turnout at the polls — especially as early voting continues to grow in popularity in Ohio?
An explanation might be found in the kinds of voters who, studies show, tend to cast absentee and early ballots: women, older and poorer voters, people without college degrees, residents of urban counties, and strong Democrats. Such voters are all less likely to vote Republican.
It’s bad enough Republicans have gerrymandered Ohio’s legislature and U.S. House delegation to ensure partisan dominance that is at odds with voters’ preferences. It’s worse when lawmakers seek to maintain control by placing obstacles in the path of voters they don’t favor.
Vote suppression is indefensible. If it continues, voters need to punish those who engage in it at the polls.