Religious groups, legislators butt heads on new election law

Ohio voting booth
Posted at 8:38 PM, Feb 23, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio congregations are known for their efforts to encourage people to vote, but a new law may stunt that. Numerous faith-based groups around the state are signing a petition to urge legislators to change an election provision.

In the state budget is a provision that prohibits public officials and government entities from partnering with any non-government organization. This includes synagogues, churches, mosques or any community-driven group.

Faith groups all over Cleveland have historically partnered with the government to help educate on elections, register people to vote and mobilize to cast ballots.

"I have long been involved in making sure voters are informed and educated, and this just throws all of that in turmoil," Barbara Friedman Yaksic said. "It's very unsettling."

Yaksic is a retired attorney who found a passion in working at the Cleveland branch of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW/CLE). The group is a nonpartisan organization that is one of the sources of support for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

She co-chairs their 'Promote the Vote, Protect the Vote' campaign. A new law may alter her impact.

"We want to make sure that if we do these activities that have been done in the past by us and other nonpartisan organizations and continue without fear of legal consequences," she said. "People just don't know, just don't understand — and this new law doesn't help it."

Since the bill would prohibit government officials and entities from working with non-government groups, many state-run programs to get people registered, take them to the polls and educate them about voting would be illegal.

Yaksic has previously organized events with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections to call people who may have accidentally messed up their ballot by putting the wrong date, they work with each other on presentations for the public and, of course, travel to different communities to register people to vote.

"Voting is fundamental," she said. "Everybody should have the right to do it.

"It should be easy. It should be easy to find out how to do it. Nonpartisan groups should be able to help."

So she and NCJW/CLE are taking a stand. The group is one of the latest signatures on a petition to remove the collaboration ban.

Sponsored by Faith in Public Life, the letter urges Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman to change the law and that prohibiting this teamwork with faith communities threatens their ministry.

"We know that these provisions originated when the State Senate reviewed the state budget," Ifeolu A.C. Claytor, Ohio Campaign Manager for All Voting Is Local, said in a statement to News 5. "The Secretary of State and others have listed that they don't think that it was the legislature's intent to prevent elections officials from collaborating with nonprofit organizations like churches and non-partisan civic organizations. Understanding this, we are calling on the legislature to make it clear so that elections officials do not have to worry about prosecution for nonpartisan activities they have participated in for decades."

The short provision sits on page 429 of the nearly 500-page final analysis of House Bill 110, the budget. Coming from her nearly four decades of experience as a litigation lawyer, Yaksic thought this law was purposely hidden.

"One of the things that bothers me is that it was just slipped into the budget bill, which means it didn't have full discussion and debate before the whole Legislature," she said. "It's too important of a right to have something like that in this bill."

Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Attorney General Dave Yost have tried to get clarity on the provision. LaRose issued a multitude of advisories and Yost issued an opinion, both asking to clarify the language of the bill.

"The language [the legislators] drafted created uncertainty there and they should revise it," LaRose said during a press conference at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Dec. 2021.

With that, LaRose has advised all County Boards of Elections to continue their work as normal.

"We are basing our behavior on what we have in writing that is come through us through proper channels of the Secretary of State," Mike West, the manager of Community Outreach at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections said to News 5.

Many other Boards are doing the same, however, not everyone feels comfortable, according to Claytor.

"We know that some of our partners in different counties have already seen changes in their interactions with their local Board of Elections," the Claytor said. "Ideally, we would like to see this necessary change occur as soon as possible. A swift correction would allow our non-partisan partners to continue to educate, register, and engage the public, expanding access to the ballot. The Secretary of State has already said he plans to continue with his work as usual, but this does not prevent county elections officials from potentially being prosecuted."

Despite the head of elections and top legal officer saying everything is okay – legally speaking, election officials could technically still get sued or get a first degree misdemeanor.

In a statement to News 5 on Wednesday, the Ohio Senate GOP and Huffman spokesperson said, in part, the law protects the election “from special interest groups that might target it and the voters with partisan agenda-driven narratives disguised as voter information."

When asked about Huffman's team's response, both the Secretary and Attorney General didn't have anything to add.

"It's too important to leave up to the vagaries of what could happen in a lawsuit down the line," Yaksic said. "however well-intentioned, that's not what we meant.

"Those statements don't have the force of law. I would prefer, frankly, to see the law amended entirely."

As of Wednesday, Fortney said there is no discussion or intention of changing the law.

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