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Government/Politics

Hearing For Bill To Change Laws On Early Voting, Drop Boxes Gets Contentious

Voters drive up to ballot drop boxes set up in the parking lot of the Franklin County Board of Elections on October 24, 2020.
Karen Kasler
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Voters drive up to ballot drop boxes set up in the parking lot of the Franklin County Board of Elections on October 24, 2020.

A Republican-backed bill that would allow ballot dropboxes only at boards of elections for 10 days before the election and would shorten the window to request early ballots got its first hearing in a House committee.

Republicans in nearly all states have put forward election law changes after the 2020 vote. More votes were cast in Ohio in 2020 than ever before, and early voting numbers were historic too.

Reps. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and Sharon Ray (R-Medina) don’t dispute President Biden’s win and say Ohio, which went for former president Trump, had a fraud-free vote last year.

But the tension in the hearing on this new bill started early. After explaining his bill, Seitz noted Democrats, who are in the minority, have introduced their own proposals.

“I would actually submit that those expansions are far more draconian than anything we’re trying to do in this bill," Seitz said. "So this is a balanced bill. It expands access. It improves the system in many ways.”

The bill sets a three-box limit on those dropboxes, which are allowed only on board of elections property and ballots can only be dropped in them for 10 days before the election. And it also says absentee ballot requests must be received 10 days before the election, not three days as in current law. Seitz said the USPS requested that.

Democrats such as Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-Cleveland) peppered Seitz for the changes, the restrictions and the timing of his 174-page bill, which she says has raised a lot of concern.

“In the past 24 hours, my office has received 500 emails and calls opposing this bill," Sweeney said.

Seitz made it clear that he was not moved.

“There has been an orchestrated campaign by folks on the left to gin up form letters, which I care very little for, because they all rest on a thread of misinformation and lies," Seitz said.

The bill also eliminates in person voting the Monday before the election, though Seitz says he’ll offer an amendment to require those six hours be allocated in the week before the election. The bill creates an online absentee ballot request system – which Democrats had said last year was needed to replace the clunky process of printing out a request, mailing it in and waiting for the ballot to arrive, then mailing that back or dropping it off. But they’re concerned that it requires two forms of ID rather that the one now.

But many questions from Democrats focused on the ballot dropboxes. There was a legal fight over those boxes last year, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose has said dropboxes are permitted only at board of elections offices.

Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati) is from Cincinnati, as is Seitz – where there were lines both to vote early in person and to leave ballots in dropboxes.

“So it would seem to me that that it would be a good thing to continue to permit people to put their ballots into the drop box for the entirety of the period prior to the election, not just in the ten days immediately preceding," Kelly said.

Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) said those lines suggested drop boxes were popular with voters, and pushed back at Seitz’ 21-year record as a lawmaker.

“It would seem like we would be more willing to do and make policy that is in line with the behaviors of folks, rather than dropping a completely new regime and telling them, ‘well, this is what we want you to do because I’ve been around the legislature for 21 years and this is just the way I say we should do it,'" Sykes said.

Seitz said the dropboxes were heavily used because of the pandemic – but refrained from using the term “COVID cowards” as he did in an interview with me earlier this month.

Seitz is not often known for using a conciliatory tone. At times he suggested Democrats' criticism was rooted in partisanship and made clear his disdain for early voting and for dropboxes, which he says have never been in state law but that will be in this bill.

“Now that might not be the progress that you want. But that is the progress that we’re prepared to offer in this bill," Seitz said. "If you think you can pass your bill and put dropboxes all over hell’s half acre, then so be it.”

Democrats wanted to continue the hearing, but Republican chair Shane Wilkin cited a upcoming caucus meeting and cut off questions after an hour and 20 minutes, which upset Democrat Stephanie Howse, who said it “isn’t right”.

A hearing began on a separate bill, and Democrats walked out. 

More hearings on the bill are likely after the Memorial Day break.

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