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Election laws changing fast in Ohio

More than 20 election related bills have been considered since January, more than previous 6 years combined.

Lawmakers are pushing through several changes to how Ohioans vote, causing voter advocates to worry the legislation will create problems as early as next year’s election.

More than 20 election-related bills have been introduced since January — more than the previous six years combined. In 2011, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed House Bill 194, which contained a photo ID requirement among many other changes. Lawmakers, facing a referendum led by Democrats and voter advocates repealed much of the law the following year.

This time, election changes have been proposed piecemeal, delivering GOP-sponsored ideas a la carte instead of in one large bill that could drive controversy and attract a referendum effort.

And the pieces are moving fast.

Senate Bill 238 would cut the number of early voting days from 35 to 29, eliminating the so-called “Golden Week” when Ohioans can register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot. The bill was introduced Nov. 13 and passed one week later, leaving time for only two hearings. A House committee plans to discuss the bill Tuesday and Wednesday.

Senate Bill 205 would make changes to voting by absentee ballot, prohibiting local boards of election from sending unsolicited absentee ballot requests or prepaying postage on applications or ballot envelopes. The bill moved through committee and passed the Senate in four weeks.

“Your average member of the public hasn’t even heard about it by the time it’s on the Senate floor,” said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “There’s so many bills it’s hard to follow them all and they’ve all been fast tracked to get done this year in time for the 2014 election.”

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters has testified on several of the pending bills, supporting provisions to allow online voter registration and authorize electronic poll books. But the organization recommended delaying larger changes so all viewpoints could be considered.

Both Senate Bills 238 and 205 are scheduled for sponsor and “all testimony” in a House committee this week — most contentious bills allow a full day of testimony and committee questions for those who oppose the bill. Two bills fast-tracked earlier this year are being challenged in the courts: Senate Bill 193 makes it harder for third parties to get on the ballot and Senate Bill 47 prohibits out-of-state petition gatherers.

Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio’s top election official and a Republican, has backed two of the proposals — online voter registration (House Bill 78) and electronic poll books (Senate Bill 109). He urged lawmakers in October to set uniform hours for in-person absentee voting, allow online voter registration and approve rules for smaller political parties to get on the ballot.

In November 2014, Ohioans will vote for all statewide offices such as governor and treasurer, all spots in the Ohio House of Representatives and half of the state’s senators. Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, said it’s clear this round of election bills is politically motivated because Democrats have turned out in larger numbers than Republicans to vote early.

“Without a doubt, they’re gearing up for 2014 in the worst kind of way,” Turner said. “Instead of learning the lesson from 2012 — the outcry from everyday people against trying to make it harder, make it more difficult for certain groups to vote.”

Turner, who is running for secretary of state in 2014, said all Ohioans would be better served by bipartisan election bills created through a process similar to last year’s redistricting reform bill. That bill was drafted by two senators from each party and passed 32-1 in the Senate.

“Why wouldn’t we take that same spirit and work on elections bills together?” Turner said. “It is because the Republicans want to scale back opportunities for people to vote in this state.”

Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., disagreed. Coley said many of the reforms have been debated in past legislative sessions and some, like ending “Golden Week” were even supported by Democrats in past years.

“It’s not that this stuff is all that different,” Coley said. “But we just want to get this done in the first year of a General Assembly so we’re not running up against deadlines in the next election.”

But changing the rules means the secretary of state, League of Women Voters and other organizations have to explain new rules to voters. Davis said numerous court challenges to Ohio’s election practices in 2012 caused them to revise their voter education materials so many times she lost count.

“We heard from boards of election and poll workers around the state, regardless of political ideology, the nonstop changes are a problem,” Davis said.

Ellis Jacobs, an attorney with Dayton-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said there are no practical reasons for cutting back on early voting. He said many counties have cut back on Election Day polling places and poll workers because early voting. Montgomery County has scaled back the number of precincts by 40 percent since 2004, when long lines across the state attracted national negative attention.

“The rule should be you don’t make changes unless there’s a pressing need to make the change and that need doesn’t exist,” Jacobs said. “We need to open up our system and encourage participation rather than restrict it or discourage it.”

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