Jon Husted recently wrote legislative leaders urging action on three priorities to improve Ohio elections. The secretary of state pointed to enacting online voter registration and clarifying the law regarding minor parties. Yet first on the list, and deservedly so, was setting uniform times for early voting, a popular option but one that was the subject of bitter litigation last year.
What Husted wisely seeks are standard days and hours for early voting across the state’s 88 counties, ensuring that all voters have equal access to the ballot. That is important in avoiding lawsuits, say, in a close election, one side arguing that voters in some counties had more opportunities to cast early ballots than those in other counties.
The other principle correctly emphasized by Husted is that the legislature should act in a bipartisan fashion, working toward a compromise in the lawmaking process rather taking their disputes to court. He stressed to the lawmakers that at this point, a plan proposed in March by a bipartisan group, the Ohio Association of Election Officials, provides a starting point for discussion.
The election officials would shorten the time for in-person absentee voting from 35 days to 29 or 28 days, depending on the year. Eliminated would be the “Golden Week” during which Ohioans can register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time, long a source of friction between the parties.
Their report recommends limited extra hours for early voting on weekdays and weekends in presidential years. The only Sunday voting would be the Sunday before Election Day, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday voting before Election Day would be eliminated. (A federal lawsuit last year restored early voting for the final three days before Election Day, the Obama campaign fighting Republican efforts to stop early voting on Friday.)
In years in which a governor is elected, the extra hours would be limited to the two Saturdays before Election Day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. In all other elections, the extra hours would come the Saturday before Election Day, from 8 a.m. to noon.
Democrats have registered strong objections to the recommendations, at this point the only bipartisan proposal on the table. It does make sense to open early voting for two weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays, in even-numbered years.
What the fighting should not obscure is that under the recommendations from election officials, Ohioans still would have plenty of time to vote. What’s more, Husted mailed out absentee ballot applications to all voters last year and will do so again next year, providing the opportunity to vote at your kitchen table. For the record, 28 states have no early in-person voting at all.
A matter so contentious requires give and take on both sides — any final deal accommodating fairly voters across the state and holding to the reason for implementing early voting: to avoid long lines and the risk of disenfranchising voters on Election Day, as happened in 2004.