Republicans slice voter registration referendum into four parts

By: - March 3, 2020 1:00 am

Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

Ohio Republicans sliced apart a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it easier to vote in Ohio.

By dissecting the “Secure and Fair Elections Amendment” into four separate ballot proposals instead of one cohesive sweep, the Ohio Ballot Board effectively increased the required number of valid signatures four-fold from about 443,000 to nearly 1.8 million (assuming organizers plod forward with each part).

Republicans on the board — Senate President Larry Obhof, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and an appointee of House Speaker Larry Householder — steamrolled the body’s two Democrats who contended the amendment focuses on the central issue of guaranteeing the right to vote.

“I guess we just have a different opinion whether this is a single purpose or not,” LaRose said.

As proposed, the amendment, offered by the ACLU of Ohio, several changes designed to ease regulatory burdens on voters, like registration requirements weeks before election day. Specifically, it would have:

  • Removed the requirement that Ohioans be registered at least 30 days before they vote
  • Allowed Ohioans to register to vote on Election Day
  • Provided for automatic voter registration through the BMV (unless one opts out)
  • Allowed in-person voting on weekdays in the 28 days before election day and on the last two weekends before Election Day
  • Guaranteed full and equal access for people with disabilities to register and vote
  • Granted military personnel an absentee ballot 46 days before an election
  • Required a “representative sample of statewide elections” to be audited to ensure accuracy and integrity

However, the Republicans argued the provisions fall into four, separate subjects: election administration, voter registration, access to voting for disabled people, and post-election audits. Their vote divided the referendum as such. 

The vote came after the board heard testimony by Anne Marie Sferra, an attorney retained by the Ohio Republican Party, who argued the proposal would be better off split into as many as six subjects.

The ORP did not issue any statement after the vote, and did not return a request for comment.  

In a statement, ACLU campaign manager Toni Webb said the organization is disappointed by the board’s decision, which goes against precedent of broadly interpreting whether an amendment covers just a single subject.

“Today the ballot board chose politics over people and demonstrated why it is necessary for us to go directly to the voters to approve of common-sense updates to Ohio’s laws to make voting more secure, fair and accessible,” she said. “It’s incredibly unfortunate and unsettling that politics may be getting in the way of modernizing Ohio’s elections to ensure that each person’s vote is sacred and counted.”

An ACLU spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the likelihood of a legal challenge or general strategy moving forward.

In 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court overruled Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s decision to split up a proposed amendment aimed to weaken the Affordable Care Act.

“The ballot board has a clear legal duty to liberally construe the right of initiative, and as long as the citizen-initiated proposed amendment bears some reasonable relationship to a single general object or purpose, the board must certify its approval of the amendment as written without dividing it into multiple petitions,” the justices wrote in 6-0 agreement (Justice Thomas Moyer did not vote).

However, the court has also held it has a duty to defer to the Secretary of State’s interpretation of election law if the subject is between “two different, but equally reasonable, interpretations.”

In an interview before Monday’s decision, J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the ACLU, said the referendum was written to drive up Ohio’s low voter turnout rates, which he attributed to an overly cumbersome registration process.

“We also in Ohio have the most restrictive registration deadline in the nation, 30 days, which is the longest allowed by federal law,” Guess said. “We need to make it possible for people to register year-round, including on Election Day.”

Dan Tokaji, an elections law professor at Ohio State University, said in an interview last month evidence is clear that easing voter registration regulations will boost turnout, especially among poorer and less-educated voters.

“Voting shouldn’t be an obstacle course, and yet for many people, it turns out to be exactly that way, especially people who are less wealthy and less privileged,” he said. “Voting is a right, and we should try to help people vote.”

He said he didn’t know who might spearhead the opposition but figured someone would. He cited a 1980 statement from Paul Weyrich, founder of ALEC, an influential conservative bill mill and advocacy group.

“I don’t want everybody to vote,” Weyrich said. “Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In Michigan’s 2018 election, voters overwhelmingly approved a similar “Promote the Vote” referendum.

LaRose declined an interview request on the amendment, though a spokeswoman noted he has publicly supported several provisions of the referendum including post-election audits, enhanced military voting, and a legislative effort to establish streamlined voter registration through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Last week, however, he told a Senate committee he would prefer the change comes through the legislature, not through Ohioans at the ballot box.

He spoke in favor of Senate Bill 186 which makes it easier and more efficient, though not automatic, to register through the BMV.

He said voting best practices change as technology improves, and as such would be better off codified in law than enshrined in the (harder to change) Ohio Constitution.

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.