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Government/Politics

Voting Groups React To GOP Proposal On Boxes, Early Voting In Ohio

Voters drove up to workers helping them deposit absentee ballots as others waited in line at Franklin County's early voting center on October 24, 2020
Karen Kasler
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Voters drove up to workers helping them deposit absentee ballots as others waited in line at Franklin County's early voting center on October 24, 2020

Groups that represent elections officials and voters are cautiously approaching a Republican-backed bill to make changes in Ohio’s laws on early voting, voter ID and other issues – just a few months after a historic election in which the GOP won the state but their candidate lost the White House. 

The bill from veteran Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and freshman Sharon Ray (R-Medina), both Republican representatives, seeks to make changes just a few months after former President Trump won Ohio in a record turnout, but lost his re-election as voters nationwide cast ballots in historic numbers.

“It’s only natural that legislators would be curious and interested in passing election reform on the heels of the 2020 presidential election. That didn’t come as a surprise to any of us," said Aaron Ockerman, the Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Ockerman said he’s seen election law changes proposed after every major vote for the last two decades.

Seitz wrote in his co-sponsor request that he doesn’t contend the win by President Biden, and says Ohio had a "fair and fraud-free count", which pleases Ockerman.

While he might sound optimistic, the head of a key voting rights group isn’t.

“We’re really worried that voting freedoms and voting access will get worse under this General Assembly," said Jen Miller, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Both Ockerman and Miller said they haven’t seen specifics of the bill, so they’re not sure what to expect. Miller’s primarily concerned that the bill puts into law that each county can only have one secure absentee ballot drop box, and proposes those ballot boxes be available for 10 days of early voting, not for the full four-week early voting period.

“Any limits to dropboxes or making absentee voting more cumbersome is the wrong direction. Ohio has a decent electoral system. There are things we can do to make the system better and that would include having more drop boxes, more early vote centers, not less," Miller said.

Ockerman’s group is also interested in that language.

“Our official position on ballot drop boxes is that there should be at least one in each county and that boards decides they want more that should be their option," Ockerman said. "Our understanding is the bill doesn’t quite get us there as it’s going to be introduced, and certainly that’s what the legislative process is for.”

The bill would also create an online absentee ballot system, and move up the ballot request deadline from the Saturday before the election to 10 days before.

Miller is concerned about how that might effect overseas and military voters. But she said online requests would be better than the current system, which requires voters to print out, fill out and mail in an application. But she said the proof of identity that appears to be in this bill is a problem.

“Right now it looks like it would require multiple forms of ID which is absolutely unnecessary. An absentee voter has to prove their identity when they ask for the ballot and then they have to prove their identity again for their ballot to count," Miller said.

The bill would disqualify ballots not returned in ID envelopes, and would ban state-paid return postage for absentee ballots, unless lawmakers vote to approve that.

It would create automated registration through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles rather than automatically registering all adults to vote, which Democrats have wanted.  

And it would cut in person early voting the day before the election, though those hours can be scheduled another day – something Ockerman notes elections officials have wanted.

“We’re not looking to cut off access. We definitely want people to have access as much as they want," said Ockerman. "And candidly, I think moving those hours back to the weekend before is a better outcome for voters and for election administrators alike.”

After the bill’s details were revealed, Ohio Democratic Party Chair Liz Walters said in a statement that reads in part: “By limiting Ohioans’ ability to vote and by sowing confusion, statehouse Republicans are once again attacking the fundamental right to vote in this state.”

Progressives on social media blasted what they said was a draft of the bill a week ago – a video from the group More Perfect Union got some details right, but said the bill would outlaw ballot drop boxes, which it doesn’t. Those who’ve seen that draft say it was old and not a version of the current bill.

Sponsoring Rep. Bill Seitz said it should be noted that Ohio has more early voting days that nearly all other states. And he said criticism of that draft bill had no effect on what ended up in this proposal, and that: “I have herd immunity from the criticisms of the organized left”.

 

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