Coronavirus: Elections reform bill sparks controversy

Ohio lawmakers debate changes to the fall election. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Ohio lawmakers debate changes to the fall election. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The Ohio House voted 61-34 along party lines on Thursday in favor of an elections bill that voting rights groups say will make casting ballots during a pandemic more difficult.

House Bill 680 would block the Ohio Secretary of State from prepaying return postage on applications for absentee ballots or on the ballots themselves. It calls for shortening the time allowed for requesting an absentee ballot to seven days before Election Day.

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It would also block public officials from canceling or delaying an election. Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton used a public health order to close polling places for the March 17 presidential primary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The fast-tracked legislation, first introduced May 27, encountered opposition from groups such as the NAACP, League of Women Voters of Ohio, Common Cause Ohio, AARP Ohio, ACLU of Ohio, Ohio Council of Churches, and others. The bill moves to the Senate now for consideration there.

The Ohio Association of Elected Officials testified as an interested party and successfully argued for a change to the bill to allow Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters this fall.

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“It is unfathomable to election officials that the legislature would encourage in-person voting by discouraging absentee voting this November,” said Michelle Wilcox, president of the OAEA, in written testimony. “During this pandemic, when we will be scrambling for every polling location we can find and every poll worker we can hire, discouraging early voting by disallowing this mailing is a recipe for trouble.”

Legislators removed the provision that would have blocked LaRose from mailing applications.

Despite that change, voting rights groups still oppose the bill.

In a written statement, All On The Line State Director Katy Shanahan blasted the legislation, saying it’ll make voting by mail more difficult and voting in person less safe. The organization is dedicated to opposing gerrymandering.

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“In its current form, despite nominal improvements included in some amendments, HB 680 is nothing more than reckless voter suppression. We are disappointed to see, once again, Ohioans shut out of the legislative process and the legislature quickly advancing a bill that will wreak lasting damage to November’s election,” she said. “Our collective driving purpose should be to make the path to the ballot box safe and easily accessible for all voters. HB 680 does just the opposite.”

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AARP Ohio asked lawmakers to change the bill to allow for online absentee ballot requests, prepaid return postage-paid envelopes for applications and ballots, expanding the number of places voters may drop off absentee ballots, extending the number of days Ohioans may vote early and mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Democrat-offered amendments to accomplish some of these suggestions were tabled.