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Ohio Voting Opportunities Limited by New Law

by Thom Kilburn

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On Friday, February 21, Gov. John Kasich signed into law changes to Ohio’s election rules that affect early voting and absentee ballot applications. The bills will take effect by the time of the upcoming November election.

The changes contained two bills that originated in the GOP-controlled Ohio House. The Senate approved House-made changes to the bills along party lines before sending them to Kasich.

Senate Bill 238 eliminates the six early voting days referred to as the “Golden Week,” during which voters are able to simultaneously register and cast early ballots. The Ohio Association of Election Officials recommended the period be scrapped to create a “clean break” between when voters are able to register and cast ballots.

Senate Bill 205 prohibits county boards of election from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications. The bill requires the Ohio Secretary of State to mail them out statewide, if lawmakers appropriate money to pay for it. Republicans said voters are not treated equally because some county boards of election choose to mail out applications, leaving the voters to pay for return postage on absentee ballots and applications.

In 2012 nearly 30,000 people from Montgomery County cast early votes in person, and approximately another 50,000 mailed in absentee ballots.

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the Kasich administration, noted the changes to the absentee voting rules make them “more uniform,” and that Ohio’s early voting period is “longer than most states.”

While the bills flew through the Senate, they faced considerable opposition from Democrats in the House. Many claimed the laws contradict best practices for election administration and represent a direct attack on voting rights vis-a-vis disenfranchisement.

Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, stated the bills will make it more difficult for urban Ohioans to vote—specifically referring to African-Americans and Hispanics.

“Voters shouldn’t have to tiptoe around a set of rules specifically tailored to throw out their ballots when exercising their most basic right as citizens,” Ramos said. “Explicitly or implicitly, this bill disenfranchises those among us who have historically been most disenfranchised.”

According to Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network, Kasich signed the bills “quickly, in private and without comment.”

“Eliminating the opportunity for voters to register and vote in-person in the same visit and tying the hands of local officials who best understand their community puts party preference ahead of the needs of the Ohioans legislators are supposed to represent,” said Brandon.

The impact these of bills will not be seen until the upcoming election season rolls around.

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