HB-194 Threatens Ohio Voting Process

Robin Wasserman

A coalition of voting rights groups showed up at the Ohio Attorney General’s office on Sept. 29 to deliver a hard-won gift: over 300,000 signatures in opposition to House Bill 194, enough to delay its enactment until it is submitted to Ohio voters as a referendum in the November 2012 election.

HB-194 has met fierce opposition since its passage by the Ohio General Assembly last June. The bill includes numerous provisions intended to “streamline” and “modernize” the Ohio voting process, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. The bill would shorten the time period for early in-person and mail-in votes, reduce voting hours on Election Day, eliminate the requirement that poll workers inform voters when they are at the wrong precinct and introduce other changes in voting laws. According to Mike Brickner, communications and public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, HB-194 originally provided for the introduction of electronic poll books and several other measures to make the voting process more electronic, but these provisions were removed before the bill was passed.

Many opponents of HB-194 see it as a blatant attempt by Republicans to discourage lower-income and student voters from exercising their right to vote.

According to Associate Professor of Politics Eve Sandberg, “It appears the Republicans are using sledgehammer tactics to address concerns that infrequently occur but which will have the impact of possibly limiting one to two percent of voters ? those voters who are considered to be within the Democratic Party’s base.”

Under current election law, absentee voting begins 35 days prior to Election Day and ends the day before the election. HB-194 shortens this period to 17 days for in-person absentee voting and prohibits early in-person voting on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday prior to elections, which is permitted under current voting law. Supporters of the bill claim these measures as efforts to curb voting fraud.

College sophomore Jesse Vogel, co-chair of the Oberlin College Democrats, contends that the threat of fraud is negligible. “The more reasonable claim is cost-cutting and streamlining the process, but … the government has a responsibility to citizens to make sure everyone has as much access as they can to vote, because without that this whole project of democracy doesn’t really work,” he said.

The current voting law, enacted in 2006, provides for “no-fault absentee balloting,” allowing voters to cast their ballots early for any reason.

Brickner explained that the policy “relieved the long lines and confusion that marred Ohio elections in the early 2000s. Voters who cast their ballots ahead of election day were able to troubleshoot problems with registration, identification or other issues that may have caused them to be disenfranchised under other circumstances.”

Vogel explained, “In 2008, there were a lot of early voting drives. People from churches would take a bus to the voting place after church. So Sunday was a big early voting day, and HB 194 would cut that.”

Vogel also highlighted another critiques voiced by opponents of the bill. “One of the things I think is the most heinous about [HB 194] is that it would make it so that poll workers are not legally required to help you. So if you go to the wrong precinct, they wouldn’t have to tell you that, so potentially your vote wouldn’t count.”

Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher said that voter fraud is a “trumped-up thing” that very rarely occurs. If the bill is really about streamlining elections, he questioned, “then why did [former] Secretary of State Ken Blackwell do everything in his power to make the elections as difficult as possible in 2004? There was a massive nightmare for voting in key Democratic precincts, including Oberlin and the east side of Cleveland, where they specifically went about depleting the supply of voting machines and [employing] other such tactics.”

Some fear that lower-income voters and those with limited access to the polls would find it increasingly difficult to cast their votes, with formidable obstacles such as work schedules and limited modes of transportation to poll sites.

According to Blecher, who has been circulating petitions in support of a referendum on the bill, “People whose lives have been made difficult by their economic circumstances don’t have the time and resources to deal with problems that come up with these laws. … For me it’s not mainly a partisan thing so much as a class thing.”

Though HB-194 will not be enacted for the November 2011 elections, a variety of volunteers and organizations are still busy educating voters about the bill. Purportedly, Secretary of State Husted is in the process of reviewing signatures in support of the referendum to confirm a minimum of 231,147 of the signatures submitted are valid.

“There is still more work to do to get more signatures to make sure it does end up on the ballot in 2012, and that work is ongoing,” Blecher said.

Brickner added, “The legislature passed the bill, the governor signed it, but the people will still have the final word. It is a powerful expression of our democracy.”