Ohio lawmakers early Thursday gave final approval to one of the most sweeping election reform packages anywhere in the nation this year, a measure its Republican sponsors say will restore confidence in elections.
The measure was originally intended to make a relatively modest change to election procedures by ending low-turnout August special elections. But it morphed into a massive 171-page proposal as lawmakers tacked on favored amendments to address voter identification laws, early voting and the process by which voters request absentee ballots, among other provisions.
“This bill began in the Ohio House as one to eliminate August special elections to save taxpayer dollars and has generated the momentum to act as the bill to codify election law and protections for Ohioans for the foreseeable future,” state Rep. Thomas Hall (R), the measure’s prime sponsor, said in a statement.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have criticized the measure’s content, timing — it won final approval in the pre-dawn hours — and the haste with which it was handled. While it once appeared dead until next year, Republicans revived the measure in the closing days of this year’s lame duck session.
“We’re faced with finding a solution to a problem that did not exist,” state Sen. Cecil Thomas (D) said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “This will create a situation where a lot more people will not be able to vote, especially our seniors.”
The measure now goes to Gov. Mike DeWine (R) for his signature or veto. DeWine has not indicated how he will act, though he has supported what Republicans call election integrity provisions in the past.
Hall’s initial goal of ending August elections — which mostly deal with issues like local bonds — survived, though municipalities or school districts can still hold an August election if they are in a state of fiscal emergency.
Here’s what else the bill would do:
Adds new voter ID requirements
The bill requires voters to show an unexpired driver’s license or state identification card, a U.S. passport or military identification card that shows their name and photograph when voting in person, with an exception for those who have a religious objection to being photographed.
Voters who apply for an absentee ballot do not have to show identification, but they must provide either a state-issued identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Voters who forget their identification may cast a provisional ballot, but they have to present a photo ID at a local board of elections after Election Day. The bill would cut the number of days they have to show up and “cure” their ballots, in election administration parlance, from seven to four.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said that provision would disproportionately burden seniors, who are less likely to have a valid driver’s license. About 10% of Ohio’s voting-age population does not have a license, she said.
“For people to say that the proponents of this bill, it looks like they’re primarily Republicans, don’t want elderly people to vote, well guess what? There are an awful lot of elderly Republicans that we count on to come and vote for us,” state Sen. Terry Johnson (R) said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “We’re not going to do anything to make it more difficult for them to vote.”
Cuts in-person voting days by one
Ohio voters are allowed to cast their ballots beginning the day after the close of voter registration, but the new bill ends the early voting period on the Sunday before Election Day — canceling voting on the Monday before Election Day.
“It’s a little bit like, ‘Let’s close our store on Christmas Eve.’ This is busy season,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a voting rights group. Monday voting, she said, “is used broadly in rural and urban counties all across the state.”
The bill requires the Secretary of State to reallocate the hours that would have been used for early voting on that final Monday to other early voting days held week prior to Election Day.
Changes absentee ballot rules
The bill will end absentee ballot applications seven days before Election Day. Current law allows someone to apply for an absentee ballot up to three days before an election. Absentee ballots must arrive at a local board of elections office by the fourth day after Election Day, rather than the ten days allowed under current law.
Counties will be limited to one absentee ballot collection site, and to one secure outdoor drop box on the premises of a county elections office. Opponents of the bill say that will lead to traffic nightmares in the state’s most populous counties and cities.
The bill creates criminal penalties for those who return someone else’s absentee ballot, unless that person is a Postal Service worker or other mail carrier, or a relative of the voter. That provision is meant to address what Republicans sometimes call “ballot harvesting,” in which volunteers collect a voter’s absentee ballot for return to a board of elections office.
Adds new rules for state and local officials
The bill prohibits any state official from prepaying the return postage on an absentee ballot application, or on the absentee ballot itself. As the use of mail-in ballots exploded during the pandemic, elections officials in some states paid for voters to send back their ballots.
The U.S. Postal Service typically delivers an absentee ballot anyway, regardless of whether it has the proper postage.
The Secretary of State — currently Frank LaRose (R) — will still be allowed to send out unsolicited absentee ballot applications, but he must report information about those applications to a state board. A previous version of the bill would have barred the Secretary’s office from sending such applications.
The bill requires county boards of elections to begin processing absentee ballots before the polls close. Current state law allows counties to do so, but the bill makes that option a requirement.
Hall’s measure ends curbside voting — in which a voter casts a ballot in the presence of a bipartisan team of elections workers — unless that person has a disability that prevents them from entering a polling place.
The bill will allow 17-year olds to work as precinct election officials through a state program called Youth at the Booth. Current law requires those workers to be high school seniors; the new measure would open those slots up to 17-year olds who aren’t yet seniors.
It also bars county election administrators from using any piece of voting equipment or a voter registration system if an elected official or his or her spouse is a partner, owner or member of the item’s manufacturer or distributor.