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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – State lawmakers are inching closer to voting on an election bill that some fear could throw a wrench in Ohioans’ ability to vote. Its supporters, however, say it does the opposite.

The House Government Oversight Committee held its third hearing Thursday on House Bill 294, or the Ohio Election Security and Modernization Act, which outlines a number of changes to state elections, like allowing voters to request an absentee ballot online and eliminating early voting on the Monday before Election Day.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters, characterized HB 294 as a mixed bag, though she ultimately testified against it. Some provisions are common sense, she said, like increasing funds for the maintenance of electronic voter rolls and permitting voters to submit absentee ballot requests online.

“The bill on balance, however, makes elections unnecessarily more complicated, expensive and inefficient for boards of elections and voters alike,” Miller said.

Current lawProposed change
Voter IDVoters can use driver’s license, state or military ID, utility bill, bank statements, paychecks for identificationVoters can use driver’s license, state or military ID, paper or electronic copies of utility bills, bank statements, paychecks for identification
Absentee votingSecretary of State can mail unsolicited absentee ballot request forms with lawmakers’ approval; Ohioans can request form by phone or mailSecretary of State cannot mail unsolicited absentee ballot request forms; Ohioans must request form online, by phone or mail
Early votingEarly voting permitted the Monday before Election Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.Eliminates early voting the Monday before Election Day, redistributing those hours the week before
Drop boxesCounties can place one drop box at, and only at, boards of electionsCounties can place up to three drop boxes at, and only at, boards of elections

But the bill’s sponsors, Reps. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and Sharon Ray (R-Wadsworth), argued that HB 294 prevents voters from being unintentionally disenfranchised and reduces the burden on those administering the election.

“This bill represents months — and in some cases years — of work as we constantly seek to modernize our election laws with the view of making it easy to vote and harder to cheat,” Seitz wrote in his sponsor testimony last year.

Absentee voting by mail

In Ohio’s most recent election, the Secretary of State’s office mailed absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter – regardless of whether it was requested – and prepaid the return postage fees through funds approved by the General Assembly.

HB 294, introduced in May 2021, would remove that power. Instead, voters would be able to request that form online, in addition to existing options to request a form via phone call or by printing and mailing the form to the county board of elections.

Miller urged lawmakers to retain Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s authority to mail unsolicited request forms to registered voters, as it serves as a good reminder that Election Day is approaching and eliminates a barrier for those unable to request a form online.

FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mailbox in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

“Sending out absentee ballots to every registered voter could also be used to check the accuracy of the voter rolls,” she said. “The forms that are returned as undeliverable could then be flagged and further investigated to determine if those voters are deceased or have moved.”

Seitz said in an email that because of the newly conferred right to request it online, “it is not necessary to send a letter to all registered voters inviting them to apply on paper.” 

“That said, I am willing, if the Senate is willing, to restore the current law provision whereby the Secretary of State may make these mailings if the General Assembly approves on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

To prevent voters from being unintentionally disenfranchised, Seitz said HB 294 also requires voters to submit an absentee ballot request form to the board of elections by the close of business on the seventh day – as opposed to the Saturday, or the third day – before Election Day. 

Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said if Ohioans wait until the last minute (Saturday) to request an absentee ballot, it’s virtually impossible for the boards of elections to process the request, mail back a ballot and have the voter postmark it within three days.

“Even though there’s no postal service on Sunday, somehow all those ballots have to get to voters on Monday – that just doesn’t happen,” Ockerman said. “If you request your ballot on Saturday, we process it and it breaks our heart. There’s no way a voter is gonna get a ballot by Monday.”

While voters using a paper absentee request form must submit it by seven days before the election, HB 294 requires online requests to be made in 10 days – two deadlines that Miller said are “unnecessarily confusing” for voters.

Early in-person voting

If passed, HB 294 would eliminate the six hours of early voting available the Monday before Election Day – a move recommended by the Ohio Association of Election Officials, Seitz said.

Those six hours would instead be redistributed to the week before Election Day, allowing the state’s 88 county boards of elections more time to process ballots and remedy errors.

Franklin County Board of Elections early voting entrance (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Kayla Griffin, director of Ohio’s chapter of All Voting is Local, testified against the bill, saying the removal of early voting times the day before Election Day could disenfranchise thousands of voters, particularly low-income and elderly voters, who have used the service for years.

But Ockerman said the number of early voting hours available to Ohioans under HB 294 remains the same. Allowing election officials additional time, he said, will shorten lines on Election Day, reduce the strain on poll workers and remedy glitches or errors in the system.

“If I don’t vote until 5 p.m. Monday, we have to make sure that’s recorded and accounted for … sometimes we’re processing stuff until 2, 2:30 in the morning,” he said.

The League of Women Voters is open to backing the provision so long as the hours are reallocated to the weekend – as opposed to weekdays – before Election Day when voters are more likely to show up to the polls, Miller said. 

Voter ID

HB 294 does not significantly change the identification required of voters on Election Day but clarifies that Ohioans can use electronic copies, in addition to paper copies, of utility bills, bank statements, paychecks or government-issued checks to verify identity.

Photo ID is not required under the bill, but Seitz said that issue is tackled in a separate Senate bill, which has yet to receive a vote.    

Ballot drop boxes

The Ohio Revised Code is silent about the rules surrounding ballot drop boxes, Ockerman said. But because of a directive issued by LaRose, one secure receptacle must be provided at each board of elections.

HB 294 would codify LaRose’s directive into the state constitution, allowing counties a maximum of three drop boxes at their board of elections location.

In this April 22, 2020, photo, Jim O’Bryan drops his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Miller and other voting rights advocates urged state lawmakers to allow boards of elections to install multiple drop boxes across the county, rather than the “one-location rule” that might block a faraway resident from getting to that location.

“Drop boxes weigh as much as 600 pounds, have 24-hour video surveillance and are weather- and fire-resistant,” Miller said. “Utilizing drop boxes is not only more secure than using the postal service, it is a more efficient and direct method of submitting voter registration forms, absentee ballots and campaign finance filings.”

Seitz, however, said he and his fellow co-sponsors are “categorically unwilling” to authorize the use of drop boxes at locations other than boards of elections, partially due to the cost of maintaining and surveilling the receptacle. 

“The drop box was only intended for use,” he said, “for balloting purposes by those who were afraid to deliver their absent ballot inside the BOE location because of COVID-related concerns.”

Voter registration

Though included in the bill’s initial form, an automated voter registration (AVR) portal was ultimately detached from its current version – a disappointment for both Seitz and the bill’s opponents.

Allowing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to automatically register a voter based on information provided to the agency, Miller said, could remove barriers to registration while streamlining Ohio’s county-by-county voter registration process that LaRose called “unacceptably messy” and “prone to human error.”

“Processing paper voter registration forms requires deciphering sloppy handwriting, following up with voters regarding missing information or errors, and paying overtime and additional temporary staff to process applications in a timely fashion,” Miller said.

For the last five months, Seitz said he’s gone back and forth with state senators to iron out the bill’s details. He laughed with contempt at Thursday’s committee hearing at the Senate’s decision to strip AVR from the bill.

“The Senate does not yet feel comfortable with automated voter registration, even though I am,” Seitz said. “But, it takes two to tango, so they say.”