Ohio House Passes Election Ref

Ohio House Passes Election Reforms

Ohio House passes election reforms
Democrats call bill an attempt to hinder their voters
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 04:35 PM
By Jim Siegel

The Columbus Dispatch

Reps. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, and Robert Mecklenborg, R-CincinnatiElections officials could no longer send absentee ballot applications to all Franklin County voters, and the time for in-person early voting would be significantly reduced under an elections overhaul bill that passed the House today along party lines.

The sweeping bill, which also would attempt to lessen the need to cast provisional ballots, allows election boards to save money through bulk purchasing, and would let voters update registrations online -- a "significant move in the right direction to unify our electoral process in the state of Ohio," said Rep. Robert Mecklenborg, R-Cincinnati.

Different county election boards should not apply different standards in the election process, Mecklenborg said, noting the disparities cause "lawsuits, uncertainty and a lack of voter confidence in the system."

Meanwhile, Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent, summed up the feelings of a number of Democrats: "Let's call this bill what it really is -- voter suppression."

Story continues belowAdvertisement Nearly two months after clashing over a bill requiring voters to present a photo-identification at the polls, House Republicans and Democrats butted heads again over major election changes.

William Anthony Jr., director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said he is particularly concerned that the bill would no longer allow Franklin, Cuyahoga and certain other counties to mail absentee-ballot applications to every active voter, and provide return postage to send back the completed ballots.

Critics have argued the process is unfair because voters in every county do not get that same treatment. But Anthony said a county with 800,000 voters should not be expected to operate exactly the same as one with 50,000.

"We are up to about 50 percent voting by mail. That saves us a tremendous amount of money," Anthony said. "Making it the same across the board is a foolish notion. It is a tremendous hindrance and will cost us a bunch of money."

Anthony said the problem is compounded by the bill shortening the current 35-day early voting period to 21 days by mail, and to 10 days prior to the election in person. However, because no in-person voting is allowed on Sunday or on the Saturday or Monday prior to the election, it leaves six in-person days to vote.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted proposed reducing it to 16 days in person.

Anthony said he likes some of the provisional ballot changes and moving the presidential primary from March to May, but said Republicans "went too far" with the bill.

Rep. Andrew O. Brenner, R-Powell, argued that unless someone is in a coma, "21 days is plenty of time to cast a vote and get it in."

"This bill is something that will help bring equity across the state of Ohio, especially to those places that cannot afford to extend their hours," he said.

Democrats criticized the shorter early voting period, changes that would toss out votes when a person mistakenly fills in the bubble and also writes the candidate's name on the write-in line, and the elimination of a requirement that an election official direct a voter to the correct precinct.

"I think this is totally in contradiction to what we need," said Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Grandview Heights.

Rep. Michael Stinziano, D-Columbus, a former director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said reform is needed, but "this bill taken as a whole is anything but reform." He said the bill does not address parts of election law that lower voter participation in the state and would instead reduce local control and create longer lines on Election Day.

Stinziano unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to allow counties to mail absentee ballot applications. Some Republicans, including Rep. Jarrod Martin, R-Beavercreek, argued it was unfair that some counties could afford the mailings, while others could not.

Mecklenborg, a sponsor of House Bill 194, said that under the bill "there is no reason there shouldn't be 100 percent (voter) participation."

"We have made it so easy to vote," he said. "Here we are nitpicking over things under the false guise of disenfranchisement and suppression."

Llyn McCoy, first vice president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and deputy director of the Greene County Board of Elections, told lawmakers earlier this month that she did not think the bill would increase or decrease voter access to the ballot.

She noted that in 2004, when Ohio did not have no-fault early voting and suffered a number of controversial issues including long lines, Ohioans cast 5.5 million ballots. In 2008, with the addition of extensive early voting, Ohioans cast 4.5 million ballots.

While parts of the bill might make voting less convenient, McCoy said, it does not impact access. "At the end of the day, a voter has to make an affirmative decision to vote. They have to bear some responsibility for taking advantage of the numerous opportunities we present to them to cast their ballot."

The Ohio Senate is working on its own election bill, and a committee vote is likely on Thursday. It contains many similarities to the House bill, but also some key differences, such as longer in-person absentee voting and the elimination of special elections in February and August -- a move school officials oppose.