Parties battle over proposed elections changes in Ohio 

State Rep. Bill Seitz, who with fellow Republican Rep. Sharon Ray is a main sponsor of House Bill 294, holds up a paper he says are Democratic Party talking points about the election legislation. Screenshot courtesy The Ohio Channel.

The Republican sponsors of a bill proposing numerous changes to Ohio election law say they are open to some compromise with Democratic opponents.

But this olive branch comes with a warning.

“(Democrats) have so far given the back of their hand to a balanced bill,” said Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati. “And the risk that they are taking is that by being disingenuous in their opposition, we might just say ‘OK, well, you don’t like a balanced bill, we might move it the rightward direction and then give you something really to howl about, OK?’”

House Bill 294, sponsored by Seitz and fellow Republican Rep. Sharon Ray of Wadsworth, has a ways to go before it becomes law. Ohio Democrats are preparing for the long fight.

State Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., and Sharon Ray, R-Wadsworth

Democrats sparred with the bill sponsors during its initial legislative hearing, and eventually walked out in protest of the committee chairman ending debate after about 90 minutes had elapsed.

Seitz and Ray addressed the early criticism of what they call the “Ohio Election Security and Modernization Act” in a Statehouse press conference on Wednesday. That evening, a number of Democratic lawmakers traveled to Cincinnati to kick off a “Freedom to Vote Tour” building opposition to the bill.

In its totality, HB 294 reflects a mixed bag for Democrats. It is among the hundreds of bills introduced in 2021 that include at least one provision to restrict voting access, per research from the Brennan Center for Justice

But it also includes provisions to make voter registration and absentee ballot requests more convenient; the latter improvement, to allow for online requests, has long been a wish list item for voting rights advocates. (There are complaints about the proposed ID requirements for these online requests.)

Democrats are choosing to oppose the whole bill and have characterized it as an attempt at voter suppression.

Here are the main provisions of the bill and how they differ from current practice:

Wanting a 'semblance of cooperation'

Ray said the sponsors are open to discussion on some of the bill’s proposed changes.

That is, Seitz said, “if we get some semblance of cooperation, which of course so far we haven’t.”

One such issue is the absentee ballot request deadline.

Those who do not want to vote in person can request a ballot be mailed to them. Currently, the deadline to request a ballot is noon on the Saturday before Election Day.

This has led to some logistical headaches for postal workers and elections officials alike. Some have advocated for the deadline to be rolled back to ensure there is enough time for ballots to reach voters and to get the completed ballots turned in.

Last year, a bill supported by House Republicans and Secretary of State Frank LaRose proposed a new deadline of seven days before Election Day.

HB 294 goes even further, calling for a deadline of 10 days before Election Day. Ray said she is open to discussing this further.

She also described being willing to hear opposition regarding drop boxes. As introduced, HB 294 would limit drop boxes from only being placed at boards of elections offices and available only during the 10 days preceding an election. 

Ballot drop boxes have been a contentious issue over the past year. Democrats want to see a major expansion of drop box usage across the state. Despite Seitz having raised suspicions about their security, elections officials maintain boxes are both secure and popular among voters.

Other proposals in HB 294 appear to be more inflexible. Among them is the elimination of early in-person voting the day before an election.

A voter departs a polling place in Hilliard in Franklin County, capping a smooth day of voting in Ohio. Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

Current law allows for six hours of early voting on such Mondays, but the Ohio Association of Elections Officials wants to see this changed. The group’s executive director, Aaron Ockerman, has said that Monday would better be spent preparing for the big day ahead.

“The Monday before is just — chaotic would not even be close to an appropriate description of the day before the election,” Ockerman recently told members of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “There are literally hundreds of tasks that election officials are having to complete the 24 hours before we actually open up the polling locations all over (each) county.”

Seitz and Ray have pledged to shift these six hours to earlier in the early voting schedule. Democrats, meanwhile, argue the Mondays before elections are popular early voting days and they want to see the schedule remain as is.

Seitz has pointed out that even with HB 294 changes such as this would still leave Ohio as being a national leader for voting access. Across the country, the average early voting period for states is 19 days, according to research from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With HB 294 in place, Ohio would still have 27 days of early in-person voting available for citizens. The last such day of would be the Sunday before an election, which itself is unique: Ohio is one of only a few states that offers early voting on Sundays.

'Nothing but a dogwhistle'

Seitz said there were a number of provisions that conservative lawmakers asked for that weren’t included in HB 294 “because we wanted to present a balanced bill.”

Democrats still see it differently, and outlined their criticisms at a “Freedom to Vote Tour” event at the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio headquarters in Cincinnati. 

Democratic lawmakers and other supporters at the town hall attributed the efforts to pass HB 294 on a number of motivations besides concern for ballot security.

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, said the bill is “connected to the idea of ‘The Big Lie’ and what happened Jan. 6, and we need to be honest about that conversation.”

While some cosponsors of HB 294 have baselessly alleged widespread fraud occurred in the 2020 election, neither Seitz nor Ray have made such claims during their pursuit of this legislation. 

Rickell Smith, executive director for the Urban League’s Center for Social Justice, claimed the primary motivation for the slew of bills to restrict voting access is racism. 

“This bill, like others introduced across the country, is nothing but a dog whistle used to suppress the votes of communities that came out in record numbers to change our country in 2020,” Smith said. “Ohio will not be the next state to join the systemic effort to suppress our vote.” 

The bill awaits its next committee hearing.

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