Ohio is latest state to see GOP-backed voting law rewrite

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio became the latest state Thursday where Republicans are proposing a significant rewrite of state election laws, an effort that comes despite sweeping GOP victories in the state last year and a smooth election.

Legislation introduced in the Ohio House calls for prohibiting placement of ballot drop boxes anywhere but at a local elections office, eliminating a day of early voting, shortening the window for requesting mail-in ballots and tightening voter ID requirements — all restrictions the House Democratic leader has criticized as “modern Jim Crow laws” targeted at disenfranchising voters of color.

The bill also would add some conveniences to elections, however, including an online absentee ballot request system long sought by voting rights advocates state and automated voter registration through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

The Ohio Senate is drafting its own election reform bill, Republican Senate President Matt Huffman told reporters Wednesday — acknowledging pushback against the House version.

“People say that’s voter suppression, and I know we’re never going to get past that line of public comment,” he said. “But I think it’s important that when we have a bipartisan group coming to you to say, ‘We can run our elections better if we make this change,’ the legislature needs to take that seriously.”

The bill’s author and co-sponsor, Republican state Rep. Bill Seitz, has said the sweeping overhaul isn’t an effort to suppress voters, as has caught attention in Georgia and other states, but a thoughtful effort to incorporate changes long sought by Democrats, Republicans, election officials and voter advocates.

Still, it comes as a movement is afoot among legislators nationally to revisit state election laws in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that election fraud cost him the 2020 election. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a wide-ranging voting bill Thursday and lawmakers in GOP-controlled Texas debated similar limits.

House Democrats said the bill takes Ohio election law in the wrong direction. They said they would like to see legislation that allows for multiple drop box locations in each county, relaxed voter ID requirements, modernized election technology and timelines that prioritize voters — not election boards or politicians.

“We’ve still got to work hard and make sure that people are just allowed to vote,” said Rep. Catherine Ingram, a Cincinnati Democrat. “We don’t want to dredge up dead people and let them vote and any of those other things that they claim that Democrats are trying to do. It’s a matter of what’s fair.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who has at times parted with his own party, has embraced key elements of Seitz’s bill that mirror proposals he has been pushing, in some cases for years. Those include the absentee ballot and voter registration changes.

LaRose also pushed an item moving the date to request absentee ballots from three days to 10 days before an election. Some Democrats have blasted the move as suppressive, although both election officials and voting rights advocates have acknowledged that the current deadline is so tight that it puts voters at risk of making their ballots late and ineligible to be counted.

Logistics also have been cited as the reason for eliminating voting on the Monday before an election. The legislation gives leeway to the secretary of state to add the six hours lost to other early voting days, such as in the evenings.

The bill would make requesting an absentee ballot online more difficult than requesting a paper version is now, requiring two forms of ID rather than one. Seitz argues that the two-step authentication system he’s outlined is necessary for election security, mirroring requirements already in place for online voter registration.

The legislation also prevents the state from using public funds to pre-pay postage for paper absentee ballot applications or the ballots themselves without legislative approval. Last year, a legislative panel rejected LaRose’s personal appeal to use a fund within his office to pay such postage, asserting that approving the proposal was the legislature’s job.

The bill would also permanently prohibit placement of drive-up ballot drop boxes at locations other than county board of elections property, eliminating authority held by the secretary of state that was affirmed last year during a lengthy court battle. The bill extends a one-dropbox location-per-county rule that did not exist before the pandemic, however.

To address a longstanding concern of voting rights advocates, the measure would permanently expand the definition of the “recent voter activity” necessary to preclude someone from being purged from state voter rolls to include signing candidate or issue petitions. Automated voter registration at motor vehicle bureaus could also prevent some people from being flagged for removal from the rolls for inactivity.