COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio House on Thursday passed an elections bill that would prohibit Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration from changing the time, place or manner of any future state elections, a response to the chaotic primary earlier this year that was postponed for more than a month due to the coronavirus pandemic.
House Bill 680 also shortens the deadline to request a mail-in ballot by four days — it’s now a week before Election Day — and bars Secretary of State Frank LaRose from providing voters with postage-paid envelopes along with their ballot applications and blank ballots. LaRose, a Republican, had proposed providing the envelopes to encourage mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill was approved by a 60-35 party-line vote. It adopts language previously passed by the Ohio Senate in a separate bill prohibiting any public official from changing the time, place or manner of an election. All the ‘yes’ votes were from Republicans, and the ‘no’ votes were from Democrats.
The House bill would require approval from the state Senate as well as DeWine’s signature to become law.
The “public official” provision is a response to the March 17 primary, which the DeWine administration postponed hours before polls were to have opened due to the then-new coronavirus pandemic. After it was first extended through June 2, state lawmakers set a plan for an extended all-mail voting period that ran through April 28. The chaotic process led to widespread confusion and at times, overwhelmed elections workers and the postal system.
“The last thing we need is a repeat of what happened with the March election,” said state Rep. Scott Wiggam, a Wooster Republican.
But Democrats said the bill, introduced just last week, was rushed, and said the “public official” language could have unintended consequences. Republicans said it would still allow local boards of election to close a polling place due to a local disaster, but Democrats said that’s not certain.
Democrats also said the bill fails to pro-actively address issues that could be unique to this year’s election, such as a possible second wave of COVID-19 that could render in-person voting unsafe or, as elections officials have warned, cause a shortage of poll workers who refuse to work due to health concerns.
Republicans defeated Democratic amendments, including those that would have allowed LaRose to provide the postage-paid envelopes.
“We are not doing right by our constituents by not making it easier for our constituents to vote,” said state Rep. Brigid Kelly, a Cincinnati Democrat.
An earlier version of the bill, fast tracked since it was introduced last week, laid out an emergency elections plan that would have allowed DeWine to request, with legislative approval, an all-mail vote 60 days before the election.
It also originally called for ending the statewide mailing of unsolicited absentee ballot applications — something the state has done for every presidential and gubernatorial election since 2012.
In the face of widespread criticism from voting-rights activists, county elections officials, LaRose and Democrats, House Republicans removed those provisions on Wednesday.
Another provision initially in the bill would have removed language from Ohio law allowing in-person early voting the final three days before Election Day, according to elections officials.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Cindy Abrams, a Cincinnati Republican, said Thursday her bill never intended to reduce in-person early voting days, since those days are offered through a series of court orders that settled litigation between the state, the ACLU and the NAACP. But, she said the language was removed to “alleviate any concerns.”