Ohio panel moves GOP-backed legislation to eliminate 'golden week' early voting

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By MARC KOVAC @ohiocapitalblog mkovac@dixcom.com Published:

COLUMBUS -- A lawmaker panel moved legislation Tuesday to eliminate Ohio's so-called "golden week," when eligible residents can register to vote and cast ballots on the same day.

The Ohio House's Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee also signed off on a separate bill that would require voters to supply specified information on absentee ballot envelopes or face the potential of their ballots being tossed.

The committee votes came on party lines, with Democrats outspoken in their opposition, setting up potential floor votes on the legislation next week.

"We're going to ramrod these bills through, and we're going to pass them, we don't care what anybody says, and we're not only going to do it in Ohio, we're going to do it throughout this country in order that we can get as many people as we can to vote, but they have to be the right people," said Rep. Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown, who opposed the bills and voiced frustration at the way the majority party has handled the deliberations.

Senate Bill 238 calls for early in-person voting to begin the day after voter registration ends, effectively reducing the absentee ballot period by a week.

Proponents believe the change is needed to give county election officials time to verify voters' eligibility before they are allowed to cast ballots.

But opponents, including Democratic lawmakers, say it's a further attempt to limit early voting and make it harder for eligible residents to cast ballots.

"There is no reason to cut the number of early voting days and cut the evening and weekend hours that boards of elections and voters have come to rely on," said Rep. Kathleen Clyde, D-Kent.

The committee also OK'd Senate Bill 205, which would permit the secretary of state to send absentee ballots to all voters while prohibiting other public officials from doing the same.

It also calls for rejection of absentee ballots that don't include specified information, including a signature and certain forms of identification. Affected voters would have until seven days after an election to fix their incomplete or incorrect submissions.

Both bills would not take effect until after the May primary.

Democrats attempted a number of amendments prior to Tuesday's committee votes to allow local elections boards to mail absentee applications, enable counties to pay return postage on absentee ballots and authorize county officials to complete certain incomplete absentee ballots.

Democrats said the changes would help to ensure more eligible voters are able to cast ballots and that those ballots are counted.

But Republicans countered that the changes would be unfair to voters in counties with tight budgets that couldn't afford the related costs and that voters have a responsibility to provide complete information on their absentee ballots.

All of the minority party amendments failed.

"I saw every damn one of them tabled -- every single amendment," Gerberry said afterward, noting he had urged straight votes on his members' amendments. "An open process? Bull. A bipartisan process? A joke."

In an unusual move, Republicans on the committee displayed a large poster titled "Where Are Democrats on Needed Election Reforms? ... Inaction Speaks Louder Than Soundbytes," just prior to the vote on SB 205.

Chairman Mike Dovilla, R-Berea, said the poster described the nearly 90 days the chamber had considered the election reform legislation and his repeated calls for suggested changes.

"I just wanted folks to be aware of how long we've been working on these bills and the process that we've attempted to follow...," he told reporters afterward. "These aren't easy issues, and they're issues that, for whatever reason, tend to attract partisan controversy to them. I don't think they need to..."

He added, "It's a matter of rhetoric not being followed up by action on one side."

The poster drew quick criticism from Democrats.

"I've never seen this," said Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria. "It's very unprofessional."

The committee heard two other Republican-sponsored election bills Tuesday, including one that would reduce the state's early voting period to two weeks from 35 days.

Rep. John Becker, R-Clermont County, wants to end early in-person voting on the Friday before Election Day.

The legislation prompted a lengthy discussion, with several Republican members voicing support for shortening the early-voting period and several Democratic members voicing the opposite opinion.

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