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COLUMBUS, Ohio (CGE) – The radar screen of one election-watcher group in Ohio appears to have detected what it thinks could be a surprise attempt by an Ohio Senate committee to pass a bill next Wednesday designed to defuse a new restrictive voting law on the ballot this November, HB 194, that Democrats want Ohioans to vote on because it energizes their base to turn out to vote, but Republicans want to scuttle for the very same reason.
Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates has caught wind that the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 7-3, is readying Substitute SB 295, that would repeal HB194, which Ohio’s new Republican secretary of state advised lawmakers last year to repeal because it could reject valid votes.
Norman Robbins, a long-time and well-known voting rights advocate, said sudden committee actions like this one “is a terrible way to make election law — in great haste, with almost no debate, and in great secrecy.” Robbins said that if such an eleventh-hour gambit to nullify a referendum petition process that citizens pushed forward with wide support is allowed to proceed unchecked, it’s not good for citizen’s rights or the referendum process, two hallmarks of democracy.
“This is an outright violation of Ohio citizen’s rights to ask for a referendum, and would discourage any future campaigns on other issues because the ruling majority could simply repeal the referendum issue before the election,” Robbins told CGE and other reporters.
But based on a published committee schedule agenda for next week, “all testimony, amendments, and a vote will occur this coming Wednesday,” Robbins said, adding that citizens need to be alerted to such secret and sudden moves to “prevent great public damage.”
Jon Husted, elected in 2010 when GOP candidates swept the field of statewide offices, was applauded across the board for issuing a strong statement that bucked his party’s support the bill. “I want to be perfectly clear, when I began working with the General Assembly to improve Ohio’s elections system, it was never my intent to reject valid votes. I would rather have no bill than one with a rigid photo identification provision that does little to protect against fraud and excludes legally registered voters’ ballots from counting.”
HB 194, signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich, made receiving absentee ballots more difficult while shortening the time for early voting. A last minute effort to add strict polling place photo ID restrictions to the bill, as other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have done, proved unsuccessful. Husted won kudos for his work, which angered many in his party.
Husted then called for the law to be repealed entirely. Doing so would make the November referendum moot. Opponents of the bill including Democrats and independents want HB 194 to remain on the ballot so exact a measure of political damage on Republicans. Another reason is to deliver more votes for President Obama, who needs to win Ohio again this year if he’s to earn a second term in the White House.
Obama won Ohio in 2008 over his GOP challenger John McCain, but this year’s race is expected to be a squeaker. A poll in February poll found 54 percent of voters would repeal HB 194 compared to 31 percent who would support it. Turning out more voters, as the bill would do if it remains on the fall ballot, benefits the president.
A spokesman for the group, whose mission statement includes the goal of improving elections in Ohio through research and advocacy for legislative and administrative changes, alerted CGE and other media last Friday that SB 295 has been added to the committee’s schedule.
What’s troubling is that the legislative assistant to chairman Sen. William Coley (R-West Chester), the sponsor of SB 295, or ranking minority member Sen. Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland), when contacted by Robbins about the rumor, offered little light on the bill’s release or content.
Coley has made it clear that on any bill that replaces HB 194, he wants “bipartisan buy-in.” Democratic Sen. Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood) noted, as others have, that repealing a law slated for a voter referendum could be unconstitutional.
House Speaker William Batchelder (R-Medina) said as recently as last Wednesday that while he supports the repeal of HB194, it was troubling that there wasn’t a bill to replace it with.
Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) and Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney (D-Cincinnati) seem to have reached an accord of sorts. The two leaders have agreed to looker closer at issues related to the bill.
Peg Rosenfield, another respected voting rights advocate who covers issues including voting rights for the Ohio League of Women Voters, who was the lone witness to testify last week in a hearing on the bill, expressed her concern to CGE in an email that the committee should not rush forward, as it seems ready to do, based on Robbin’s information.
Fair Elections Ohio, the group behind the successful effort to repeal HB 194, said Republican legislators should allow voters to have the final say on it at the ballot box.
Key provisions of HB 194:
- Reduce by mail absentee voting to 3 weeks from 5 weeks and reduce in person absentee voting to 2 weeks
- Ban in person absentee voting on Sundays and every Saturday after the noon hour
- Ban in person early voting during the last weekend before the election
- Make it more difficult for Election Boards to open extra offices in the community to make it more convenient to vote early
- Stop local Election Boards from sending absentee ballot applications unsolicited to all eligible voters
- Stop local Election Boards from paying postage on return absentee ballot requests or on the return of absentee ballots
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