Ohio Republicans propose changes to state election laws

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – State lawmakers are nearing voting on an election bill that some fear may affect the ability of Ohio residents to vote. However, its proponents say it does the opposite.

The House Government Oversight Committee on Thursday held its third hearing on House Bill 294, or the Ohio Election Security and Modernization Act, which outlines a number of state election changes such as Election Day.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters, called HB 294 a mixed bag, although she ultimately testified against it. Some provisions are common sense, she said, like increasing funding for maintaining electronic voter rolls and allowing voters to submit ballot-by-mail applications online.

“However, the bill unnecessarily makes elections more complicated, expensive and inefficient for election officials and voters alike,” Miller said.

Current law Proposed Change
Voter ID Voters can use driver’s licenses, state or military ID, utility bills, bank statements, and paychecks for identification Voters can use driver’s license, state or military ID, paper or electronic Copies of utility bills, bank statements, paychecks for identification
postal vote The Secretary of State may, with the consent of the legislature, send out unsolicited absentee ballot application forms; Ohioans can request the form by phone or mail The Secretary of State cannot send unsolicited absentee ballot application forms; Ohioans must request a form on-lineby phone or email
Early voting Early voting is possible on the Monday before election day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m Eliminates early voting on the Monday before Election Day and redistributes those hours the week before
drop boxes Districts can only place a Dropbox at election boards Counties can place up to three Dropboxes with — and only with — Electoral Committees

But the bill’s sponsors, Reps. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and Sharon Ray (R-Wadsworth), argued that HB 294 prevents voters from being inadvertently disenfranchised and eases the burden on those administering the election.

“This law represents months — and in some cases years — of work as we continually seek to modernize our electoral laws to make voting easier and cheating harder,” Seitz wrote in his sponsorship statement last year.

postal vote by postal vote

In the last Ohio election, the Secretary of State’s office mailed absentee ballots to every registered voter — regardless of whether it was requested — and paid return mailing fees from funds approved by the General Assembly.

HB 294, introduced in May 2021, would remove that power. Instead, voters could request this form online, in addition to the existing options of requesting a form via phone call or printing the form and mailing it to the county electoral authority.

Miller urged lawmakers to retain Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s authority to mail unsolicited application forms to registered voters because it serves as a good reminder that Election Day is approaching and removes a roadblock for those who cannot request a form online.

FILE — In this file photo dated Tuesday, August 18, 2020, a person drops applications for mail-in ballots into a mailbox in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, file)

“Sending absentee ballots to every registered voter could also be used to verify the accuracy of voter rolls,” she said. “The forms returned as undeliverable could then be flagged and further examined to determine whether those voters have died or have relocated.”

Seitz said in an email that because of the newly-granted right to apply for it online, “there is no need to send a letter to all registered voters asking them to apply on paper.”

“That means I’m ready, if the Senate is ready, to restore the current statute that allows the Secretary of State to send out these mailings if the General Assembly approves on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

To prevent voters from being inadvertently disenfranchised, HB 294 also requires voters to submit an application form for absentee ballots to the Electoral Committee by close of business on the seventh day — as opposed to Saturday or third day — prior to Election Day.

Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said that when Ohioans wait until the last minute (Saturday) to request a ballot-by-mail, it is virtually impossible for election officials to process the request, mail back a ballot, and have the ballot Voters postmark it within three days.

“Even if there’s no mail on Sundays, somehow all these ballots have to get to voters on Monday — that just doesn’t happen,” Ockerman said. “If you request your ballot on Saturday, we process it and it breaks our hearts. There is no way a voter gets a ballot paper by Monday.”

While voters using a paper absentee application form must submit it by seven days before the election, HB 294 requires online applications to be submitted within 10 days — two deadlines that Miller said are “unnecessarily confusing” for voters .

Early Personal Vote

If HB 294 were passed, HB 294 would eliminate the six hours of early voting on the Monday before Election Day — a move recommended by the Ohio Association of Election Officials, Seitz said.

Those six hours would instead be reallocated to the week before Election Day, giving the state’s 88 county election committees more time to process ballots and troubleshoot errors.

Franklin County Board of Elections early voting entry (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Kayla Griffin, director of the All Voting is Local chapter in Ohio, testified against the bill, saying removing early voting hours the day before Election Day could disenfranchise thousands of voters, particularly low-income and older voters who have used the service for years .

However, Ockerman said the number of early voting hours available to Ohioans under HB 294 remains the same. Giving election officials extra time, he said, will shorten election day queues, reduce the burden on poll workers and fix glitches or bugs in the system.

“If I don’t vote by 5 p.m. on Monday, we have to make sure that’s recorded and accounted for…sometimes we get things done until 2, 2:30 a.m.,” he said.

The League of Women Voters is open to supporting the provision as long as the hours before Election Day are moved to the weekend — as opposed to weekdays — when voters are more likely to turn up to vote, Miller said.

Voter ID

HB 294 does not significantly change the identification required of voters on Election Day, but clarifies that Ohio citizens can use electronic copies of utility bills, bank statements, paychecks, or government-issued checks in addition to paper copies to verify identity.

Photo ID is not required under the bill, but Seitz said that issue will be addressed in a separate Senate bill that has yet to be voted on.

poll drop boxes

The Ohio Revised Code is silent on ballot box rules, Ockerman said. However, due to a policy issued by LaRose, a secure bin must be provided at each Election Committee.

HB 294 would codify LaRose’s policy into the state constitution and allow counties a maximum of three Dropboxes at their Election Committee location.

In this April 22, 2020 photo, Jim O’Bryan drops his ballot in the mailbox at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, file)

Miller and other voting rights advocates called on state legislatures to allow election boards to install multiple Dropboxes across the county, rather than the “single location rule,” which might block a distant resident from getting to that location .

“Drop boxes weigh up to 600 pounds, have 24-hour video surveillance, and are weather and fire resistant,” Miller said. “Using mailboxes is not only more secure than using the postal service, it is also a more efficient and direct method of submitting voter registration forms, absentee ballots and campaign finance filings.”

However, Seitz said he and his fellow sponsors were “categorically unwilling” to authorize the use of mailboxes in locations other than election committees, in part due to the cost of maintaining and monitoring the bin.

“The Dropbox was intended solely for use,” he said, “for voting purposes by those who were afraid to cast their absentee ballots within the BOE site due to COVID-related concerns.”

voter registration

Although included in the original form of the bill, an automated voter registration (AVR) portal was eventually split from its current version – a disappointment to both Seitz and opponents of the bill.

According to Miller, allowing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to automatically register a voter based on information provided to the agency could remove registration barriers while streamlining the county-by-county voter registration process in Ohio, which LaRose called “unacceptable.” “messy” and “human-prone” error.”

“Processing paper voter registration forms requires deciphering sloppy handwriting, tracking missing information or voter errors, and paying overtime and additional temporary staff to process applications in a timely manner,” Miller said.

Over the past five months, Seitz said he’s been back and forth with state senators to iron out the details of the bill. He laughed with contempt at Thursday’s committee hearing on the Senate’s decision to remove AVR from the bill.

“The Senate is not yet comfortable with automated voter registration, although I am,” said Seitz. “But it takes two to tango, they say.”