COLUMBUS – Republicans in dozens of state legislatures across the country have introduced bills proposing controversial new restrictions on voting following former President Donald Trump’s election loss.
But Ohio isn’t one of them.
Republican lawmakers who control the state legislature here actually haven’t introduced a single bill proposing changes to elections rules, making Ohio one of only a handful of states to not yet tackle the issue.
That will change soon.
Republicans in the Ohio House and Senate have been coordinating as they discuss introducing separate elections bills, according to people involved with the talks.
Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati-area Republican and number-three ranking member of House leadership, declined to say what would be in the House version, in part because it remains a work in progress. He said something will be coming in the next week or so, and he expects it to garner support from the caucus.
“I’m not going to get into it, because there’s 215 things in there. But I’m going to tell you, there’s something in there for everybody to either love or hate,” he said.
Seitz said a major aim for the bill will be to codify Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s policies into law. Ohio’s election rules dictating how and when people can vote, especially as it applies to early voting, are a patchwork of laws, court orders and administrative policies.
One issue that could be addressed, Seitz said, is automated voter registration, a dialed-back version of “automatic voter registration” policies favored by voting-rights activists. LaRose has proposed allowing voters to automatically update their voter registration when they visit the BMV, resetting the clock on a process that can purge voters from the rolls for voting inactivity.
In an interview, LaRose said he’s optimistic the Republican elections bill also will include proposals to allow people to request absentee ballots online, compared to the current rules, which require a paper form.
“I’m hopeful such a package will not move us in the wrong direction on the work Ohio’s done to make us a national leader in making sure elections are secure and accessible,” LaRose said.
Ballot drop boxes likely to be limited
A likely target of the coming legislation is ballot drop boxes, a hotly contested issue during last year’s presidential election.
Although a few large counties have had them for years, the Ohio legislature last year formally regulated them for the first time, requiring counties to temporarily offer them for the primary election last year.
LaRose, a Republican, unilaterally extended the policy through the general election, requiring each county to offer them at their Board of Elections headquarters. But he fought lawsuits from Democrats and voting-rights groups to allow counties to set them up at more than one location, prompting criticism from national liberal pundits and even Cleveland Cavaliers player Larry Nance Jr., who grew up in Summit County.
Seitz has indicated during private talks that he plans for the House version to propose eliminating ballot drop boxes, except during declared emergencies. That would effectively ban them, given the historic nature of the coronavirus pandemic and Republican state lawmakers’ recent efforts to restrict the governor from issuing health orders.
The Senate version of the bill meanwhile could propose formally setting a limit of a single drop box per county.
Ohio House Democrats have introduced a bill that would mandate at least one drop box per county, and allow counties to set up more if they want to. It’s this legislative’s session’s only major voting proposal. The bill, House Bill 209, has no Republican sponsors and has yet to receive a committee hearing.
But another proposal that’s been discussed is online absentee ballot applications, which would make voting significantly more accessible.
The current system requires Ohioans to print off a paper form or request one and submit it to their county board of elections. The process is informal enough that voters even could hand-write an application, as long as it contains the required information. Lawmakers have discussed making tougher rules for online absentee applications, requiring voters to provide additional personal information.
Lawmakers drafting the bills also have discussed eliminating early in-person voting on the Monday before Election Day and adding the hours to other days, moving the deadline earlier for requesting an absentee ballot application and requiring counties to record when voters sign petitions as “voter activity” for purposes of resetting the clock on the voter-roll purge process.
Seitz also said the bill will incorporate elements of House Bill 680, which cleared the House last June but died in the Senate, which would have prohibited the state from providing postage-paid envelopes with absentee ballot applications.
An earlier version of HB680 would have eliminated in-person early voting in the Saturday, Sunday and Monday prior to the election, but Republicans removed the provision following intense public criticism.
Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Elections Officials Association, which represents county boards of elections, declined to talk about any specific proposals that lawmakers are discussing.
“Generally speaking, I’m pleased the legislature is taking a thoughtful approach and engaging stakeholders and getting feedback instead of just passing something based on what Pennsylvania or Arizona’s doing that may not be applicable in Ohio,” he said.
Jen Miller, leader of the Ohio League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voter-rights group, said she plans to follow any elections bill closely.
“We want to work with the Ohio General Assembly to solve problems that actually exist,” she said. “Voters need more drop boxes, more early-vote centers and a better system for requesting absentee ballots. Anything that reduces access is a nonstarter,” she said.
Republicans pursue voting changes after November election, coronavirus pandemic
Voting security has been a hot-button issue for Republicans since Trump lost the November election. The former president falsely claimed victory on election night, while late-arriving absentee ballots were still being counted in key swing states.
In the weeks before leaving office, Trump continued his attacks on the election, claiming widespread fraud in the states he lost. Dozens of courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected Trump’s claims, as did Republican officials in Georgia, a key focus of Trump’s ire, and top congressional Republicans like former Senate President Mitch McConnell and Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning but nonpartisan advocacy organization, says 47 states now are considering laws restricting voting. (Another 47 states, a slightly different set, are considering bills expanding voting.) Democrats and voting-rights activists have accused Republicans of voter suppression, saying they’re changing the rules in response to false claims from Trump.
Trump hasn’t criticized officials in Ohio, which has a permissive mail-in voting system similar to those in other key swing states, and which the former president won by 8 points.
But Trump’s allies also have made conspiratorial claims about voting machines, including those made by Dominion, a company that provides supplies machines in Ohio. These false claims have prompted Republican Stark County commissioners, pushed by local pro-Trump activists, to attempt to block the county board of elections’efforts to buy them. Stark County elections officials have sued the county in the Ohio Supreme Court.
LaRose said concerns that emerged following the election were a mix of “conspiracy theories as well as some really legitimate concerns.” Without directly criticizing Trump, LaRose has said he doesn’t believe widespread fraud occurred, and has criticized what he’s said is trend of politicizing elections administration by challenging the results of elections if people don’t like who won.
“I don’t want to claim too much credit for this, but I think we’ve been very pro-active about communicating this and working with members of the legislature and getting to hear their concerns, while reminding them we shouldn’t react to concerns of other states by modifying our state law when what other states should do is modify their states to look like Ohio’s,” LaRose said.
But even before Trump claimed irregularities cost him the election, Republican lawmakers in Ohio were considering making changes to Ohio’s elections system.
The review began after Gov. Mike DeWine unilaterally postponed the March 2020 primary hours before polls were to have closed and after he lost an 11th-hour court case. The move happened in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and DeWine said carrying out the election would have forced Ohioans to choose between their safety and their voting rights.
The move angered Republican legislators, who after approving rules for an all-mail April 28 primary, passed a law restricting DeWine and other governors from making future changes to elections.
Lawmakers planned to take up a more comprehensive elections bill, but like other issues, it went by the wayside after the FBI arrested then-House Speaker Larry Householder last July as part of a federal bribery probe.
Unlike some other states, Ohio’s elections are run on a local, bipartisan basis, with Republicans and Democrats splitting administration and oversight duties.
Ohio also has relatively liberal early-voting policies, including regular statewide absentee ballot application mailings to all registered voters and almost 30 days of early voting, including weekday and weekend in-person early voting.
The state’s voting system also features some restrictions meant to promote security, like voter ID requirements, although voters are allowed to show alternate forms of ID like a utility bill, and regular purges of voters after years of inactivity. Voting-rights activists have opposed these policies, saying they result in people being wrongly denied the right to vote.
As research has found nationally, voter fraud is rare in Ohio, repeated post-election audits have found. After the 2016 election, officials found 153 “irregularities” in Ohio identified during the 2016 election out of 5.6 million votes cast, according to former Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who now is lieutenant governor.
LaRose has been making the rounds, touting Ohio’s election as other states consider imposing new restrictions. He testified before the Pennsylvania legislature last month, bragging about the state’s record voter turnout and low rejection rate for absentee ballot requests.
“And I’ve been very clear for those who have asked in the legislature — they shouldn’t overreact to concerns they have in other states, and they shouldn’t mess up what we have in Ohio,” he said.