COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A significant rewrite of Ohio's election laws is under way that could reduce early voting days and prohibit ballot drop boxes while also adding conveniences like online mail-in ballot requests, the bill's sponsor said this week.
State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, said the bill he's been working on for months is not a suppressive overhaul of voting protocols, as has caught attention in Georgia and other states, but a careful effort to incorporate changes sought by both Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Seitz told The Associated Press. “It takes a great number of steps forward in terms of voter access and improving the administration of our election laws.”
Seitz declined to provide details of the proposal, which he said has not been finalized but is “very, very close” to release. He said he has been working closely with Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s elections chief, and bipartisan local election officials on the bill.
The sweeping overhaul comes after state officials touted the 2020 election as running smoothly despite many possible problems connected to the pandemic. LaRose's office reported records were set for turnout, total votes cast and the percentage of requested absentee ballots that were returned. He also reported that Ohio slashed the percentage of absentee mail-in ballots disqualified for voter error to less than half a percent, despite a surge in first-time voters.
Seitz said of the timing, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and there's always room for improvement.”
An early draft of the legislation obtained by the AP called for a host of new voter restrictions, including: requiring two forms of ID to vote early or by mail; banning the ballot drop boxes allowed and popularized during the coronavirus pandemic; eliminating a day of early voting the Monday before the election; and prohibiting the state from paying ballot postage.
The draft was leaked to and first reported by More Perfect Union, a left-leaning media startup, which characterized it in a Friday video release as a “devastating new voter suppression bill.” Democrats followed up with harsh criticism.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about the shameful voter suppression law that was recently passed by the Georgia state legislature -- the law that will make it illegal to hand out food and water to voters waiting in line to vote, as well as cutting access to early voting and reducing the number of ballot drop-off locations,” Ohio House Democratic Leader Emilia Sykes said in a fundraising email linking to the video. “A new Republican voter suppression bill in the Ohio Statehouse is so draconian that the Georgia law looks mild in comparison.”
Seitz said the draft has since been revised and that those who read it “ran off half cocked” without understanding the context of some of the controversial provisions. County election officials, for example, have wanted the final day of early voting eliminated for logistical reasons, he said.
A legislative package LaRose pushed last year, which stalled, is also being reviewed for incorporation, Seitz said. It called for: allowing online requests for mail-in ballots; including postage-paid envelopes with all ballot request forms and ballots; and moving the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot from noon on the Saturday before the vote to a week before the vote, to assure return ballots have time to get through the mail.
Democrats said Seitz is appearing to “walk back” what he planned to do because he and the state's Republican-led Legislature have been “caught in the act” of attempting to suppress voters' rights.
“For years, Republicans in Columbus have attacked Ohioans’ voting rights by implementing some of the most extreme measures in the country," Ohio Democratic Party Executive Director Malik Hubbard said in a statement. "And now that other states are taking notes, GOP lawmakers refuse to be outdone. Once again, we know Ohio will be on the forefront of the fight to protect voting rights and our work to protect Ohioans’ right to vote is more important than ever.”