Just a few weeks ago the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, made up of Republicans and Democrats, released their recommendations based on testimony from election officials, experts and voters from around the country. Ohio Governor John Kasich and members of the Ohio legislature must not have read the report. If they had, they wouldn't have passed and signed two election bills last week that reduce access to voting.
Governor Kasich quickly signed two bills, in private without comment, that will reduce early voting and prohibit local boards of elections from mailing all voters absentee ballot applications. These laws contradict proven best practices for election administration and represent a direct attack on voting rights two years after more than 1.8 million Ohioans cast an absentee vote by mail or early, in person. These changes will disenfranchise voters with no identifiable benefit. Eliminating the opportunity for voters to register and vote in-person in the same visit and tying the hands of local officials who best understand their community puts party preference ahead of the needs of the Ohioans legislators are supposed to represent.
SB 238 reduces the early voting period from 35 to 29 days and eliminates "golden week" where Ohioans can register and vote in person in the same visit, thereby removing opportunities to participate in our elections. About 59,000 Ohioans voted during "golden week" in 2012. Supporters of the bill claim that "golden week" represents a threat to election integrity but neglect to mention that ballots cast during that week are not counted until Election Day and only after a person's eligibility is confirmed. It is important to remember why Ohio has so many opportunities to vote early, long lines at the polls a decade ago may seem like just a memory here, but it would be a shame for Ohio to return to such chaos. Florida had to learn its lesson the hard way when long lines in 2012 led the legislature to partially reverse its reduction of early voting options. SB 238 limits voters' options and will increase lines for the remaining early voting period and on Election Day.
By passing and signing SB 205, the legislature and the Governor ignored the fact that local election officials are the experts on how elections are best run in their communities. High-population counties mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters to encourage early voting and reduce lines on Election Day. The bill takes control of this system out of the hands of the local boards of elections and allows the secretary of state's office to mail applications to all voters only in even-numbered years and only if the state legislature sets aside funds for it. Access to absentee ballots should not be determined every two years by politicians in Columbus who might find it in their political interest to make voting harder.
The restrictions the legislature approved also contradict the reforms the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration endorsed last month. The Commission was co-chaired by the top lawyers for the Romney and Obama 2012 campaigns. Their reforms and best practices to improve elections are based on months of testimony and thousands of pages of research from Democratic and Republican election officials, voters, academic experts and voting rights advocates. One of their main recommendations includes expanding opportunities for early voting.
Secretary of State Jon Husted used the Presidential Commission's report to tout Ohio's policies for absentee and early voting, military voters and clean voting rolls. Ohio's elections have improved because efforts to limit access to voting have previously been stopped. While some of his self-praise is warranted, the recent actions of the legislature weaken the points Secretary Husted has publicized. He fails to acknowledge that the bill passed this week represents the culmination of a long campaign by him and the legislature to reduce early voting days. If the bill to reduce early voting is signed into law, it will further cement the fact that Ohio's leaders are working to weaken election systems in the state.
Secretary Husted also ignored the popularity of Sunday voting hours and eliminated them for the upcoming November election. His recent directive will only allow the polls to be open for in-person early voting from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays, offering no evening hours, and from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. the last two Saturdays before Election Day. This, in addition to the reduction of early voting days, will have a significant impact on Ohioans.
Governor Kasich ignored the harm these bills will cause to the voters of Ohio. If Secretary Husted really wants to make Ohio the gold standard for election administration, he should recognize that reducing early voting and ignoring the local expertise of boards of elections are not the way to move the state forward. Legislation like this is leading Ohio down the old path to more confusion and longer lines on Election Day. Expanding voting opportunities should be a priority for Ohio's leaders, not creating barriers to participation.