by J.D. Davidson
A bill that would eliminate early voting in Ohio the day before an election and stop the mailing of absentee ballots 10 days before Election Day got its first hearing in the Ohio, and it came with controversy.
Democratic lawmakers walked out of the House Government Oversight Committee on Thursday after they say committee Chair Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Hillsboro, threatened to cut off debate.
“What we saw today was unsettling – Republicans unwilling to engage in civil discourse on their bill that would silence the voices of Ohioans by rolling back the right to vote,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron. “If Republicans are unwilling to hear the people out, Democrats are going to take this issue to the people.”
House Bill 294 also requires testing of voting machines before use in all elections and expands the definition of voter activity to ensure fewer active voters are purged from voter rolls, bill cosponsor Sharon Ray, R-Wadsworth, told the committee.
“Ohio succeeds at elections because we’ve found the right balance of voter access and election security,” said Ray, a former member of the Medina County Board of Elections and the Ohio Elections Officials Association. “I think we can all agree it’s in all our best interest to build off that balance – utilizing both technology and best practices to improve upon our election system. I believe this bill achieves that objective.”
Democrats, however, have been critical of the bill from its beginning, saying the elimination of early voting days, along with two-factor voting ID to request an absentee ballot online, disenfranchises voters, particularly minority voters. They also argue it makes the process more confusing.
“After lawmakers were denied the ability to thoroughly vet a 174-page bill with vast implications on our right to vote, it’s abundantly clear that the intent of House Bill 294 is not to improve voter access or work across the aisle to build a democracy that works for all of us,” said Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland. “If elected officials are not allowed to ask questions and make their voices heard, then why should we trust the GOP to let Ohioans make their voices heard at the ballot box?”
Ray called the current Ohio law that allows for absentee ballots to be requested up until the third day before a general election unrealistic and a guarantee for disenfranchisement, saying “it is highly unlikely that voters that waited that long would receive their absent ballot in time to be filled out and returned by the deadline.”
Ray also called the bill balanced and said members have had many questions answered.
“Never in my 21 years of service in the General Assembly have I seen a more comprehensive set of materials distributed to all members of the House by way of the cosponsor request,” Ray said. “In many ways, this bill has been vetted before it has ever had sponsor testimony.”
Democrats announced a statewide listening tour for June 2-5 to hear concerns about the bill. Stops include Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron and Cleveland.
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An Ohio native, J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher. He is regional editor for The Center Square.
Photo “mail-in ballot” by Upupa4me CC 2.0.