Voters in line. Photo by John McCosh.
More Ohioans voted in the 2020 General Election than in any other election in state history.
Elections officials, voter rights advocates and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are still looking into ways to improve voting access for the years to come.
There were numerous legislative efforts to change Ohio’s elections system in big ways and small during the 133rd General Assembly, which began in 2019. Only a small few of these ideas were passed into law, meaning any attempts to enact changes will have to start over with the beginning of a new legislative term in January 2021.
The pandemic was one roadblock to change, said Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, a Cleveland Democrat who introduced several reform bills this term. She said there was also some reluctance from other lawmakers to reshape state election laws during a contentious presidential election year.
Here is an overview of the changes proposed over the past two years and what may come up again in 2021:
Automated registration for Ohio voters
In Ohio, eligible citizens are responsible for registering themselves to vote and updating that registration when they move to a new address.
What if an automated system did that for them?
There were bipartisan attempts in 2019 and 2020 to create such a system. The proposals involve the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as it is one of the most common and regular government agencies that Ohioans interact with.
Information provided on a voter registration form is similar to the information already being given to the BMV, such as a birthdate and address. The idea is to have automated voter registration stemming from a visit to the BMV, with info being sent on to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office and eventually the 88 county boards of elections.
State Sens. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, introduced a bill to create this system in the Ohio Senate, and Rep. Gayle Manning of North Ridgeville introduced a similar bill in the Ohio House of Representatives.
A proposal from Sweeney goes further. Her bill includes the BMV provision, but she notes that some Ohioans do not drive and therefore would still be left out. So her bill also involves having public and private high schools send student information to the secretary of state’s office. This would “pre-register” teenagers into the voter registration system early, thus making them eligible voters for when they are old enough to vote.
In all of the above proposals, Ohioans would be able to opt out if they did not want to be registered.
There was one election bill that did pass during a recent lame duck session and awaits DeWine’s signature.
Senate Bill 194 seeks better oversight to Ohio’s voter registration databases. The law, introduced by state Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, appoints a cyber security expert to the renamed Board of Voting Systems Examiners. It also establishes new standards for the vendors chosen to provide county elections boards with their voter registration systems. SB 194 passed both chambers with bipartisan support.
Absentee voting issues
The state’s absentee ballot request process received a great deal of attention in 2020, with the pandemic leading millions of Ohioans to cast ballots by mail and drop box rather than at the voting booth on Election Day.
All Ohioans are given the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot. They must first request a ballot before being sent one. This request form is filled out on paper and then mailed or dropped off to an elections office.
State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, introduced a bill to allow for these requests to be made online. Though it received support from voter rights groups and Secretary of State Frank LaRose alike, the bill did not make it to the Ohio Senate floor.
In committee testimony, Gavarone called this a “real and important step forward” toward making the state’s election system “easier for voters and more efficient for election administrators.”
A bill introduced by House Democrats during the summer proposed doing away with the application step entirely, instead having the state mail a blank ballot to all registered voters.
The sudden postponement of the primary election in April, carried out by Gov. Mike DeWine and then-state health director Dr. Amy Acton, led some House Republicans to seek a prohibition on that scenario ever playing out again. Rep. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, proposed a bill to disallow a public official from preventing an election from being carried out.
Abrams’ bill also sought to roll back the absentee ballot request deadline. Ohioans can request an absentee ballot up until noon on the Saturday before Election Day. That bill altered the deadline by four days to be a full week before Election Day. It also called for prohibiting the secretary of state from prepaying postage on ballot request forms and the ballots themselves.
This bill passed the Ohio House but was not taken up by the Ohio Senate.
There were other debates in 2020 regarding an expansion of early voting access which may continue next year.
Currently, each county offers one in-person early vote site (typically the board of elections office). Voting advocates want to see more early voting sites in future elections. LaRose has expressed support for this proposal.
Drop boxes also proved to be a contentious issue during the fall, with advocates and Democrats filing lawsuits to allow for more boxes in the state. Various judicial rulings stated that existing Ohio law neither prohibits nor expressly allows more boxes to be offered. There may be efforts in the next General Assembly to clarify state law regarding this issue.
There were a few other election reform proposals that did not succeed in the 133rd General Assembly:
- Rep. Sweeney sought to make Election Day a legal holiday to give public employees the day off to head to the polls.
- Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, proposed a bill to add Ohio to the “Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.” This would require Ohio to pledge its electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote, not necessarily which candidate won Ohio specifically. The agreement would not go into effect until the total number of electoral votes represented in the agreement adds up to 271 (the requisite number to become president).
- Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, proposed a bill to change Ohio’s presidential primary elections from March to being held in May.
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