COLUMBUS -- A group of Democratic lawmakers has proposed a constitutional amendment to require extended early voting hours and other measures aimed at ensuring more eligible voters' ballots are counted.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus kicked off what it's calling the Ohio Voter Bill of Rights campaign to counter Republican-backed election law changes passed in recent years or pending the legislature that opponents say make it harder for minorities, the elderly, disabled and needy voters to participate in elections.
"We can't wait any longer," said Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, president of the black caucus. "Every week there's a different bill that's eroding our voting rights. Many said they can't sit on the sidelines any longer."
The effort was announced during a press event at a Columbus church, taking on the atmosphere at times of a worship service, with lively music and comments from area clergy.
"You and I cannot afford to sit idly by while those who sit on Broad Street, who feed at the trough of our taxes and who serve at our behest seek to strip from us the basic, fundamental, foundational right of the constitution and us as citizens," said Bishop Timothy Clarke of First Church of God in Columbus, bringing attendees to their feet in affirmation. "And we will speak up so that when the come for one, they come for all of us."
The proposed amendment declares voting "a fundamental right" for citizens 18 years and older who have registered at least 30 days in advance of an election.
It would retain "golden week," the period during which eligible residents can register and vote on the same day. It also calls for extended early in-person voting, including during the final two weekends before each general election.
The amendment lists types of identification that could be provided to prove a resident's eligibility to vote, including driver's licenses, utility bills, bank statements or paycheck stubs.
Ballots cast erroneously due to poll-worker mistakes could not be tossed, and more provisional ballots cast by voters whose eligibility is questioned likely would be counted.
According to the amendment, "The general assembly may pass laws expanding and facilitating the voting rights and opportunities guaranteed under this article, but in no manner denying or limiting them. The state shall not impose any qualification, except as provided in this article, nor impose a tax, charge or expense, as a condition to voting or registering or updating a registration to vote."
Backers hope to place the issue before voters during the November general election.
But they'll have to collect more than 350,000 valid signatures from registered voters to accomplish that task. They'll also have to gain approvals from the attorney general, secretary of state and ballot board before they even begin circulating petitions.
Signatures would be due by early July.
"It's a bottom-up approach from the grassroots up and not the top down," Reece said. "We will depend on volunteers all across this state. ... We will be in churches across the state to get people registering and getting people to sign petitions to get this on the ballot. We will be in lodges across the state. ... Wherever we have to go to get people to sign petitions so that the people have a right to vote on their voting rights."