Cleveland Plain Dealer: For the sake of Ohio’s deployed military, lawmakers need to reconsider tighter ballot deadline

On a number of levels, House Bill 458, the voting reform grab-bag bill that Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law recently, is Exhibit A for why consequential measures should not fall victim to the maelstrom of lame-duck legislating during the weeks immediately following an election.

HB 458 started out its legislative life as a bill to end August special elections, with some narrow exceptions, but by the time DeWine signed it, lame-duck lawmakers had smooshed into it elements of two major election-law reform bills long pending in the Ohio House and Senate — House Bill 294 and Senate Bill 320.

At the same time, last-minute changes in the lame duck significantly altered the proposal, without hearings and extensive debate. HB 458 went from 15 pages as passed by the House in December 2021 to 171 pages as passed by the Senate on Dec. 13, 2022, during the lame duck. Yet no hearings had been held on it since December 2021, according to Legislative Service Commission records on the bill.

And that’s the problem with rushing a highly important law into being in the intense horse-trading of a lame-duck session where knowledgeable voices of caution tend to be drowned out and there is no opportunity to hear from those outside the legislature on potential problems.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board has been critical of a number of provisions of HB 458, but one stands out as a possible unintended consequence: The law’s shortening, by eight days, of county election boards’ deadline for a mailed ballot to count could create a huge potential problem for deployed military service members from Ohio.

It runs the risk of disenfranchising many deployed military voters from Ohio, especially given up-front requirements in the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act that set registration and ballot-request deadlines for such voters.

The 1986 law is intended to make it easier for those living or deployed overseas to vote in federal elections. But its deadlines mean that Ohio can’t tinker with the front end of those election schedule requirements — only the back end; that is, when such absentee mailed ballots have to be received by Ohio election boards to count.

And HB 458 shortens that time from 10 days after the election to four days after the election — a provision that was subject to its own lame-duck horse-trading after some lawmakers wanted there to be no grace period, so that only absentee ballots received on Election Day or before would count. Ultimately, the legislature compromised on a four-day grace period.

But in the rush, it seems the special needs of deployed military might have been overlooked, minimized or simply not considered adequately.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, an Army reservist and former Green Beret who himself has voted absentee using the UOCAVA law, was among those pushing unsuccessfully for a longer grace period to receive ballots, although not back to the previous 10-day window.

But as the experience of one formerly deployed Ohio military veteran, who wrote in a recent letter to the editor about his experience voting absentee from Tallil Air Base in Iraq in 2008, demonstrates, even the 10 days can be tight. Mark Andrew Szabo of Rocky River wrote that his ballot request submitted per UOCAVA was received and processed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Sept. 24, but he didn’t get his actual ballot until the week before the Nov. 4, 2008, election, that he mailed it back prior to Election Day, but it wasn’t processed until Nov. 12, eight days after the election.

UOCAVA, as amended in 2009, now requires state officials to provide an electronic option for voter registration and absentee-ballot-application requests for military and overseas voters, and to “establish (secure) electronic transmission options for delivery of blank absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters,” according to a Department of Justice summary of the requirements.

It’s unclear if Ohio has fully implemented such measures, or if there are impediments to their use — underscoring why important law changes that might unintentionally disenfranchise certain classes of voters should not be made without full testimony and consideration.

All this is to say that the 135th General Assembly should revisit the state’s tightened four-day grace period for receiving absentee ballots and amend it if investigation by LaRose’s office and further consideration and hearings show that it will likely disenfranchise military and overseas voters, contrary to UOCAVA’s goals.