Restricting Access or Restoring Integrity?

GOP pushes for tighter election rules

Hamilton County candidates seeking elected office in November might experience dramatic outcomes to their races as Ohio voters adjust to new election laws.

Sweeping election law reforms are pending in the both the Ohio House and Senate that supporters say are aimed at ensuring accuracy at the voting booth, but that critics counter will disenfranchise some people.

In fact, Ohio joins other states — Texas, Indiana and Wisconsin — in making dramatic changes to their voting laws all before the next general election.

House Bill No. 194 and Senate Bill No. 148 are being considered by the Ohio Legislature to streamline the voting process while addressing specific administrative issues that have affected races, especially involving provisional ballots, supporters say.

But critics say the changes are an effort by the GOP to gain an advantage in the 2012 presidential election. They allege the changes amount to a new form of the poll tax because it requires voters to present one of four specified forms of government-issued photo identification. If a voter doesn’t have a photo ID, the person must present a birth certificate to get the required state ID card; not only is it a cumbersome process, but obtaining a copy of the birth certificate costs money.

Poll taxes are illegal and historically have been used to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

“Provisions of this bill will upset the stability of our election system and make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote and have their vote counted,” says Daniel P. Tokaji, a professor with the Ohio State University’s Election Law @ Moritz project. “House Bill 194 will result in years of controversy, litigation and confusion for the state of Ohio, at a time when Ohio’s election system is functioning better than it did in 2004. The net effect of the bill would be to make our election system worse than better.”

H.B. 194 and S.B. 148 are expected to be voted out of committee this week and possibly go to a floor vote by next week.

“This is an important piece of legislation,” says State Rep. Robert Mecklenborg (R-Green Township), chairman of the House Government and Election Committee. He described the bill, which he co-sponsored with Rep. Louis Blessing Jr. (R-Colerain Township), as sweeping legislation that tackles a number of administrative issues that haven’t been effectively addressed.

The changes include restricting the time for early or absentee voting, prohibiting board of elections from offering satellite offices for voting, restricting the function of poll workers, requiring a full Social Security number when voting a provisional ballot, streamlining the provisional ballot process and creating an online process for voters to update their information if they’ve first updated it with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“It’s important to get this piece of legislation in place for the general election, to get one election cycle under our belts before the presidential election,” Mecklenborg says.

He noted that once the reforms are in effect and voters use the process, the legislature will have time to adjust the reforms if there are any glaring problems.

The GOP typically has alleged voter fraud

has corrupted the political process. But in 2007, the U.S. Justice Department said its five-year study found no evidence of widespread fraud; about 120 people nationwide had been charged during that period.

In March the House passed a photo identification bill, H.B. 159, requiring all voters to show either an Ohio driver’s license, state identification, military identification or a U.S. passport. H.B. 159 has been sent to the Senate for approval but has not been assigned a committee.

Ohio Secretary of State John Husted doesn’t support the photo identification bill because he believes voters should use Social Security numbers to verify their ballots. But Mecklenborg says he didn’t support the use of the Social Security number because of privacy and identity theft issues.

“I am not comfortable with voters using their Social Security numbers and I believe more research needs to be done on this,” Mecklenborg adds.

Husted’s wish for voters to use their Social Security numbers on their ballots is part of S.B. 148.

Critics are leery of the changes.

“An election law overhaul of this magnitude should have bipartisan input or it runs the risk of increased litigation at election time,” says State Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent). “Our hope was to have a thoughtful and deliberative process but that has not yet occurred.”

Those against the reforms fear long lines will return on Election Day, similar to the ones that plagued the 2004 election.

If the state lawmakers approve the bills, Hamilton County’s 545,063 registered voters will have to comply with the reforms on Nov. 8. Mecklenborg seemed optimistic that the voters will handle the new laws with ease, believing no one will be disenfranchised and the state may experience a record turnout.

Many people, however, disagree with Mecklenborg, believing fewer people will have an opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

State Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) couldn’t comment to specifics of the bill except to say that S.B. 148 is a much different approach than the Senate took in pushing for election changes in 2008 and 2009. Seitz questioned why the shortened window for absentee voting is needed, along with the proposal to eliminate special elections held in February and August, which townships and school boards oppose.

Seitz is adamantly against allowing first-time voters to register online even though the law currently allows voters to change their name and address online. For first-time registrants, officials should have hard copies of registrations just in case there is a problem, he adds.

The issues that S.B.148 address have been percolating for years and it’s important to get them in place prior to the presidential election. He says the bill reflects the thinking of the new Secretary of State and Ohio election officials, although not necessarily those of the local election boards.

According the Fair Elections Legal Network, the two bills are significant changes that threaten to roll back important advances

Ohio has made in administering elections since 2004, and are missing an opportunity to truly fix what’s broken with Ohio’s election laws.

The Legal Network and the Ohio League of Women Voters have expressed concern that both bills overly restrict access to the polls.

Also, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU) testified against the passage of both bills, stating it agreed with some provisions but the overall effect would disenfranchise thousands of Ohio voters. The ACLU is mostly concerned about the severe cuts to early and absentee voting, and that changes to the provisional balloting rules will increase the number of ballots deemed invalid.

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke, who sits on the county’s Board of Elections, says he doesn’t believe the reforms are necessary.

“Folks can easily vote today and not so in the future … they’ve already made it more difficult,” Burke says.

Burke has served on the Board of Elections for almost 18 years and says they’ve never had a problem with people walking in and signing their name right next to the recorded copy in the polling books. There is no history of a massive occurrence of impersonation in a polling place.

“It’s being made up,” Burke says. “Our friends in the Republican Party are attempting to create massive voter fraud and it’s not happening.”

The proposed changes that many Democrats especially dislike include provisions severely limiting the number of days that a person can vote at a designated polling location, down from 35 days to just five and a half days; new requirements that make it more difficult to cast and count a provisional ballot; and changes that eliminate local control by county boards of elections.

Decreasing in-person early voting will make it more difficult for voters who to participate and additional changes will mean that fewer votes will be counted, critics allege.

These changes include discarding votes because of incomplete voter information on the absentee ballot request or on the provisional ballot affirmation forms. Also, the bills needlessly prohibit poll workers from assisting voters to get them to the right voting location or to make sure that paperwork is filled out properly.

“The key question should be whether or not this bill increases participation, and unfortunately H.B. 194 falls well short,” says State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill).

She adds, “Denying someone their right to vote because of a minor error on a form or because their ballot was cast

in the right polling location but at the wrong precinct table is simply unconscionable."

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