Ohio witnessed bitter partisan fighting over election rules in last yearís presidential race, the high stakes magnifying every dispute. When the Republican-controlled legislature passed a wide-ranging election bill, Democrats, furious over language curtailing early voting, threatened a referendum, leading Republicans to repeal their own measure. Even so, lawsuits flew, over early voting and provisional balloting.
This year, Republicans are taking a step-by-step approach. Instead of advancing a comprehensive bill, they are breaking off smaller pieces. Two have passed, one a bipartisan measure dealing mainly with making sure the disabled have access to the polls, and the other a more contentious bill that standardizes the number of days groups are allowed to circulate petitions to get initiatives and referenda on the statewide ballot.
Tougher issues lie ahead ó such as clarifying rules on provisional ballots (more than 200,000 cast last year) and setting uniform hours for early voting. Unfortunately, the way the Republican majority in the Senate is rolling out bills does not bode well for bipartisan compromise. Should Democrats object, they would face multiple statewide campaigns, each costly and complex.
On setting uniform hours for early voting, Republican lawmakers would be wise to follow the bipartisan path set by the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Its recent report outlined a sensible compromise, shortening the number of days available for early voting from 35 days to 28 or 29 days (depending on the year) yet allowing extended weekday and weekend voting hours. The officials correctly underscored the need to avoid variations that could lead to more lawsuits.
Republicans also are signaling that they wish to reduce the number of reasons for casting provisional ballots. Thatís good, the high number making them potentially decisive in close races, and thus more fodder for litigation.
In doing so, Republican leaders must keep in mind that provisional ballots, cast when questions arise about voter registration and counted later, were intended originally as a tool for easing access to the polls. As it is, some provisional ballots are rejected for highly technical reasons, the identities of voters plain even if they have not properly filled out all identification information.
In all of this, it is important to remember that Ohioís election system is bipartisan at its core, each board of elections made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. That is the same spirit that must be followed in crafting election law changes. Each side must drop harsh comments about voter fraud and suppression, seeking compromises that assure equal treatment for all voters, with rules broad enough to apply sensibly to all counties.