As the deadline for Thursday’s paper approached, action by the Ohio House to repeal a controversial elections bill, House Bill 194, seemed certain. The repeal bill, Senate Bill 295, had moved through the Republican-dominated upper chamber on a party-line vote. With the Republicans also in control of the Ohio House, there seemed little doubt about the final outcome. Days before, the House State Government and Elections Committee had sent the bill to the floor, the vote also split along party lines.
So, after calling a local legislator’s office and watching streaming video of the House slogging through its agenda, I wrote a column for Thursday as if the House had already approved S.B. 295. Except, at the last minute, late Wednesday evening, the House didn’t follow my plan. It held off final action until May 8.
What happened? As the session ground on, the House minority leader, Armond Budish, approached the Republican speaker, Bill Batchelder, with a deal that had died earlier in the day, when the Senate refused to go along.
The Democratic-led petition committee that put H.B. 194 on the November ballot for a referendum was willing to withdraw the issue if the Republicans would strip language from the repeal bill that kept alive one of H.B. 194’s most objectionable features — cutting off in-person absentee voting for the final three days before Election Day. Democrats regarded GOP efforts on the cutoff as an end-run around the referendum, which put H.B. 194 on hold until voters could decide.
Will the offer from Fair Elections Ohio work?
It would meet the Democrats’ demand for a “clean” repeal bill, and it would eliminate potential legal complications over whether the referendum issue could be removed from the ballot without the consent of Fair Elections Ohio, leaving nothing to potentially boost Democratic turnout.
Left hanging would be questions about whether a bill headed for a referendum could be repealed, something never before done in the Ohio General Assembly’s 209-year history. A deal would help those questions go away.
Most important, a clean repeal of H.B. 194 and its formal removal from the ballot would avoid voter confusion on Nov. 6 and then set the stage for bipartisan negotiations on a new elections bill.
Such a clean start is badly needed, especially when it comes to provisional ballots. Voting experts have repeatedly warned that fights over provisional ballots could throw a close election in this battleground state into Florida-like chaos, and the unwelcome glare of the national spotlight.
— STEVE HOFFMAN