COLUMBUS, Ohio (WSYX) — A photo ID requirement to vote. New barriers for citizens to amend the state constitution. Possible disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Ohio voters, including many serving overseas in the military.
These are among the sweeping changes for Ohio voters that Republicans who dominate the state legislature are pushing in the name of combatting voter fraud and keeping special interests out of Ohio elections.
Critics say since there is demonstrably little voter fraud, the extensive proposals are part of a GOP agenda to make it harder for Ohioans to vote - especially the poor and minorities who tend to vote Democratic.
And the race to enact such newly introduced, far-reaching measures in a lame-duck General Assembly session with only a couple of weeks remaining was repeatedly slammed in testimony before legislative committees airing the proposals in a pair of hearings Wednesday.
"Why the need to rush through immense changes in election law in a hasty, last-minute and underhanded maneuver?" asked Mia Lewis, part of the nonprofit group Common Cause, during a late-afternoon gathering of the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.
"What is so desperately wrong with Ohio elections that requires these drastic and draconian measures to be enacted right now, without time for thoughtful discussion and analysis?"
New voting barriers for those serving in the military
One of the most controversial proposals would mandate that only absentee ballots returned by the time polls close on Election Day can be counted. Ohio law currently allows mail-in ballots to be counted if they arrive within 10 days after Election Day -- if they are postmarked before the election.
The practice was set up several years ago so voters wouldn't be disenfranchised by a slow postal service. It especially helps Ohioans who are temporarily overseas - including those in the military.
While no official statewide count has been released showing how many voters would be affected, nearly 20% of military and overseas ballots from last month's election would have been disqualified in Warren County near Cincinnati, said the county's elections director, Brian K. Sleeth. He is president of the nonpartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials.
"The deadline change is crazy," said Sleeth, who also is a county Democratic Party officer.
Sen. Theresa Gavarone, who chairs the Senate panel, said after the hearing she hopes US troops from Ohio are encouraged to vote earlier if the new law takes effect.
The Bowling Green Republican cited unsubstantiated allegations -- deemed false by elections experts and fact-checkers - by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that updates to voting totals after Election Day automatically are suspect.
"Certainly after the past few elections, we’ve seen things across the country where people have had concerns about the election results as they change and we want to make sure we’re doing everything right here in Ohio," she said. Gavarone dismissed the notion that she is raising the issue merely because Trump has, saying her concern is about Ohio elections.
You'll likely need a photo ID to vote next year
Actual vs merely suspected fraud also is a key issue in the tussle over whether to require a government-issued photo ID. The state would issue free IDs to anyone 17 and older who needed it. The cost for doing that hasn't been made public.
Ohio now allows specified forms of ID that don't include photos, such as a recent utility bill, bank statement or government check. Polls show that the idea of mandated photo IDs to vote, already required in at least eight states, is popular. Gallup reported in October that a bipartisan 79% of Americans favor the concept.
"Requiring a voter to show a photo ID will simultaneously confirm their identify and preclude a bad actor from stealing their vote," testified Beau Euton. She's with Opportunities Solutions Project, a group allied with the Florida-based conservative organization Foundation for Government Accountability, according to the liberal Center for Media and Democracy.
"House Bill 458 is an excellent bill that will increase security, accountability and transparency in Ohio elections," Euton said.
However, Collin Marozzi, deputy policy director of the Ohio ACLU, pointed to statistics from Secretary of State Frank LaRose showing he has made only 630 referrals of possible voter fraud to the Ohio attorney general's office since 2019.
"Not only is that a minuscule percentage of voters in that period," Marozzi said, "Zero referrals were for voter impersonation. All the data shows that voter fraud in Ohio is exceedingly rare. Voter impersonation, however, is nonexistent.
"So it begs the question: Why impose this prohibitive mandate at the 11th hour, and force Ohio taxpayers to foot the bill?"
Committee member Jerry Cirino, a Republican senator from northeast Ohio, wondered why states with current strict photo ID requirements, such as Georgia, and showing few if any ill effects of the law.
"There's a long history of participation regardless, so the suggestion that voter ID is going to have a consequential impact on voters' ability to express their opinion and access that privilege is really not founded in practical fact," he said.
'It’s going to have a chilling effect'
Across the Statehouse at the same time Wednesday, the proposal to require 60% statewide voter approval to pass proposed citizen-initiated constitutional amendments was getting roasted in testimony with the House Government Oversight Committee.
Opponents have panned the measure as a thinly disguised tactic to head off planned amendments that would establish a right to abortion in Ohio, revamp the process of drawing congressional and legislative maps, and increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2028.
"I find this rushed power-grab particularly distressing," testified Jen Miller, president of the League of Women Voters of Ohio -- part of a coalition of around 150 groups that oppose the plan.
"Any changes to a process that is over a century old should be thoroughly deliberated, not rushed through lame duck and then put before voters during an off-year primary, when low turnout is to be expected."
Miller said while the change is touted as necessary to thwart special interests, the result would be the opposite.
"It will make it almost impossible for anyone except deep-pocketed groups to fund successful (get-out-the-vote) campaigns and extensive media buys that would now be required to have a ballot initiative passed at the higher approval rate."
In contrast, David Mahan, policy director for the Columbus-based Center for Christian Virtue, said that proposed amendments backed by the group have successfully achieved the 60% minimum.
"We believe the changes ... are neither onerous nor unreasonable."
But Rob Walgate, vice president of the conservative American Policy Roundtable, accused the GOP supermajority in written testimony of "attempting to lay a heavy burden on Ohioans, thus changing the balance of power in state government."
Walgate's group has been instrumental in several campaigns for state constitutional amendments, including the successful addition of term limits for legislators and executive officeholders in the 1990s.
He noted that had the 60% minimum been in place in 1851, Ohio's revised constitution would have failed. It got only 53% of the vote.
Several critics, such as Canal Winchester Democratic Rep. Richard Brown, questioned the GOP plan to rush the measure onto the May primary ballot - presumably to head off possible constitutional votes in the November 2023 election. Noting that turnout in major counties such as Franklin sinks almost to single digits in those off-year elections because so few major items are on the ballot, Brown said, "I don’t think it helps democracy. I think it hurts democracy.”
Tim Burga, longtime president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, told ABC 6 On Your Side that if the 60% measure wins approval, Ohioans will see fewer "bread-and-butter type, citizens-led initiatives, I think it’s going to have a chilling effect."
Burga was a key advocate for a 2006 constitutional amendment to establish a minimum wage in Ohio. The floor will climb to more than $10 an hour next year.
The minimum wage issue is one of only two that would have been defeated since 1950 if the 60% threshold had been in effect. The other was casino gambling.
Republicans LaRose and Pickaway County state Rep. Brian Stewart are pitching the big change as necessary to protect Ohio from special interests.
The 60% minimum is likely to win committee approval next week, sending it to the full House for what is expected to be rapid consideration.
Meanwhile, the Senate bill may get even more election-rate provisions before it is moved by the committee, also probably next week.
Republicans have enough votes in the legislature to approve the measures without Democratic support