Photo Caption: State Sen. Lou Gentile, left, and state Rep. Debbie Phillips, right.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law Friday several bills that will rewrite voting rules in the state, eliminating a number of early voting and registration opportunities as well as tightening identification standards.
Critics say that the bills are intended to undermine early voting in the state and disenfranchise a variety of low-income, minority, and elderly Ohioans.
Ohio Republicans are touting the legislation as helping local boards of elections meet the challenges of preparing for Election Day.
In a press release last week, state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, referred to the two pieces of legislation as "contentious voter suppression bills."
Senate Bill 238, sponsored by state Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Fairlawn, does away with what's known as the "Golden Week" of voting, where an overlap of absentee voting and registration deadlines previously allowed Ohioans to register to vote and cast an absentee ballot the same day.
The bill reduces the number of days an absentee ballot can be case by mail or in person from 35 days to 29 days before an election.
State Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, sponsored Senate Bill 205, a second voting-related piece of legislation that increases the items of identifying information required of absentee voters to have their ballots be counted.
This bill also prohibits any public official other than the state's secretary of state from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters. Under the bill, the secretary of state is even only allowed to do so in even-numbered years with funding appropriated by the General Assembly.
"These bills further erode Ohioans access to the ballot," Phillips said in a release last week. "Given low voter participation, we should be doing everything we can to make it convenient and easy for people to vote and for their vote to be counted."
Phillips said that under the new rules, election workers will not be allowed to assist voters unless those voters are disabled or illiterate.
"This means that voters in nursing homes will no longer be able to receive assistance from bipartisan teams, making it harder for seniors to vote," she said. "And further, the new rules will likely lead to an increase in the number of overseas military ballots that are thrown out for minor paperwork errors. This is unconscionable, inexcusable and likely illegal under the voting rights acts."
Kasich signed the bills Friday without appending comment. They are slated to go into effect in 90 days unless blocked by court action. To that end, the Ohio Democratic Party has vowed to sue.
Phillips noted that the legislation passed along party lines, and said that there is no evidence they address any current problems in Ohio's elections system. She said that S.B. 205 creates the harshest ballot rejection rule in the country.
The Ohio Democratic Party also pointed to editorials from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade, and the Akron Beacon Journal critical of the legislation.
"These bad measures aren't as blatant as the poll taxes and literacy tests that Southern elections officials used during the civil rights era a half-century ago to keep African-Americans from voting," the Blade wrote. "But their effect is largely, and intolerably, the same, and their approval would seem to invite court challenges under federal voting rights law."
State Sen. Coley, who sponsored 205, did not put out a press release on the subject as of Sunday, nor had the governor's office or the Ohio Republican Party. Coley did say in November that the legislation makes voting more fair.
"Voters across Ohio should always be treated in an equal manner, regardless the city or county in which they cast their ballot," he said. "This bill makes certain that each Ohioan is given the same access to an absentee ballot."
LaRose also made no mention of his legislation in a press release over the past week.
In November, he shared an editorial from the Columbus Dispatch that argued in favor of his effort.
"The issue is clear-cut: Allowing people to register and vote on the same day doesn't give election officials enough time to verify that the registration is accurate before counting the vote," the Dispatch wrote. "While there is no indication that the overlap has led to fraudulent voting, it does create the possibility and it makes administering elections more difficult."
State Rep. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea, wrote in the Ohio House Majority Caucus Blog that the new rules relieve undue strain put on local boards of elections.
"This leaves a weeklong timeframe during which voters are both registering to vote and voting, placing additional strain on local boards of election as they enter the most demanding time of the election cycle," he wrote. "Under Senate Bill 238, absentee voting will begin the day after voter registration closes, thus eliminating the overlap and giving local officials the time they need to adequately prepare the voting rolls for the pending election."
He said that according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Ohio will remain one of the top 10 states in the nation for the number of days for early voting under S.B. 238.
State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, slammed the Republican majority in Ohio's statehouse on their priorities
"The majority has spent more time focusing on disenfranchising voters in the state of Ohio than they have on policies that will create jobs and put people back to work," he said. "We should be encouraging participation in elections, and this latest string of bills will make it more difficult, and discourage certain people from voting. It seems to me we are going backward."
He pointed to elderly residents who may rely on communications from their local board of elections for absentee voting, noting that under these laws that type of assistance will no longer be allowed.