When Republican legislators who dominate the Ohio General Assembly say “election reform,” all too often what they really mean is “suppress the Democratic vote.”
Any doubts about where the GOP majorities are headed when it comes to changing Ohio’s elections law were erased Wednesday as the Ohio House voted along party lines to approve Senate Bill 295, legislation with a history so complex it all but defies explanation.
Which, in today’s sound-bite world, is exactly what Republicans are counting on to blunt public reaction.
On the surface, Republicans argued that S.B. 295 gave Democrats exactly what they wanted — the repeal of another GOP-backed elections bill, House Bill 194, passed last year.
“They won’t accept surrender,” complained Ron Young, a House Republican from Leroy.
In important respects, his statement is ludicrous, going far beyond the latitude normally allowed for political speech. In other words, if it was rated by PolitiFact, the truth-in-politics website, it would get a “Pants on Fire” rating.
Although the Senate bill had a complicated history, the end result was a backdoor maneuver to revive one of H.B. 194’s most objectionable features, the end of in-person absentee voting for the three days before Election Day.
That’s when interest in early voting peaks. The three-day window is especially important for voters who might find it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day and, if long lines develop, would be among the first to return to work or family responsibilities.
It is not lost on Republicans that such voters tend to select Democratic candidates.
Besides cutting off in-person absentee voting, H.B. 194 also created other, unnecessary barriers to voting. Democrats and their allies were furious that provisional voting was made more complicated and that poll workers were restricted in helping voters.
After the bill passed, a citizens committee succeeded in putting it on this November’s ballot for a referendum. The referendum drive put the bill on hold until voters could make the final decision.
That’s when Republicans decided to make an end run on the referendum process. They used another elections bill, dealing with military and overseas voting, to include language cutting off early voting.
But the bill was convoluted because the statutes to which it referred had been altered by H.B. 194, which was then put on hold. Secretary of State Jon Husted (who advised a repeal of H.B. 194 to avoid confusing voters) asked the legislature for clarification. But Husted followed the party line by issuing a directive cutting off early voting in last November’s elections.
So, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate decided, we’ll provide clarification, our way.
House Democrats would have preferred a clean repeal, with a promise from Republicans not to try another elections bill between now and Nov. 6. Democrats also warned of potential legal difficulties because the General Assembly had never before repealed a bill headed for a referendum vote.
Another difficulty raised was that it is probably not possible to take the issue off the ballot without the agreement of the committee that put it there.
But for Republicans, repeal made the referendum meaningless, ending any likelihood of boosting Democratic turnout and saving the GOP from the embarrassment of a likely defeat at the polls.
For Democrats, the repeal killed much of a bad bill, H.B. 194, and saved them from the somewhat embarrassing position of being for the repeal of Senate Bill 5, the bill on public employee bargaining, when it was heading for a referendum. (Then, it was the Republicans who detected legal problems with a repeal under such circumstances. In the end, voters killed S.B. 5).
All those calculations aside, the long-term trend of Republicans using elections law to block access to the polls in ways that suppress Democratic turnout is clear in H.B. 194.
Ohio has so far avoided requiring voters to present photo identification to cast a ballot (with Husted, a Republican, among those objecting to such a requirement), but strict photo ID requirements have been pursued with success in nine states, Republicans raising the issue of voter fraud even though it is extremely rare. Republicans know their voters have an easier time getting to the polls and, once there, are likely to be persistent.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.