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December 4, 2022 Through December 10, 2022

Committee Tweaks Absentee Ballot Provisions In Election Bill

By Gongwer Staff
Posted: December 5, 2022 8:40 AM

A closely watched election measure poised for possible lame duck action picked up a pair of changes prompted by concerns from the secretary of state, elections officials and opponents.

But the changes are likely not enough to blunt the waves of continued criticism from groups arguing the plan (HB 294) will sow confusion and lower voter turnout.

That action by the House Government Oversight Committee came during the panel's fourth hearing and as Chair Rep. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro) eyes a potential committee vote late next week.

The wide-ranging measure – which among other things eliminates August special elections, creates an online absentee ballot application process and ends early voting the Monday before Election Day – continued drawing concerns from various corners with more than a dozen opponent testimonials submitted.

Only written testimony was accepted, which Chair Wilkin attributed to "miscommunication on getting testimony in." He assured those in attendance testimony will be received when the panel meets next week – likely Wednesday and Thursday – in advance of a likely vote.

Both amendments came from joint sponsor Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Twp.), including language he said was sought by Secretary of State Frank LaRose, election officials and some opponents.

That amendment maintains current law enabling the secretary of state to mail unsolicited applications for absentee ballots for general elections pursuant to a General Assembly-authorized appropriation.

The restoration of that provision is a stark turnaround from two weeks earlier when the committee eliminated that provision in a substitute bill. (See Gongwer Ohio Report, November 17, 2022)

"We are now saying the better part of valor is to leave that there because the General Assembly will control whether it happens or not and whether we have the money to fund it or not," Rep. Seitz said.

"If online applications for absentee ballots become as ubiquitous as ordering from Amazon, maybe we won't need to do this anymore, but we don't know for sure so we're just going to leave current law alone for now," he added.

The other change he credited to earlier testimony from the League of Women Voters of Ohio, which argued the previous round of changes presented two different deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot – seven days before the election for paper request forms and 10 days before the election for online requests.

To correct what Rep. Seitz deemed a "technical" issue, the amendment shortens the deadline to submit an online application to cast absent voter's ballots from the close of business on the 10th day before Election Day to the 7th day.

"This makes it seven days for both," he said. "Not 10 and seven."

In submitted testimony, the Ohio Association of Election Officials suggested several other changes be made, including that officials restore language previously cut from the bill that would have enabled voters to automatically update their registration information or initiate new registration at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

The association, which is an interested party, also pressed lawmakers to move toward consistency with early absentee voting hours, including beginning weekday hours at 8 a.m. and ending them on the hour rather than on the half hour.

Policymakers should also consider maintaining the current number of absentee voting hours or even expand those hours in the final week of voting, the group wrote.

Other changes requested by the association would:

  • Clarify the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot mirror the end of early in-person voting hours the Tuesday before an election.
  • Allow ballots to be postmarked by Election Day rather than the day before as in current law.
  • Ensure that absentee ballots returned inside an envelope but outside the ID envelop can be counted if identifying information matches.
  • Nix language requiring drop box surveillance tape to be released immediately and clarify it is a public record subject to the same requirements as other public record requests submitted to boards.
  • Enable boards to continue to vote hospitalized individuals by sending a bipartisan team to the hospital until 3 p.m. on Election Day.

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