The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
An Ohio House committee advanced two controversial voting measures Monday without additional debate, one to raise the threshold for constitutional amendments to 60% and the other for various election administration provisions. The 7-5 Republican-to-Democratic party line votes put both proposals on track for a full House vote later this week.
Open and shut
In previous hearings, numerous speakers came forward to criticize the proposals. More were ready to speak in committee Monday but didn’t get the chance.
Only one organization has shown up in person to support the latter. Ironically that group, Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project, looks a whole lot like the “outside groups and special interests” the sponsors say they’re fighting.
The last time a supporter came forward for the election administration bill was in June — last year. At the time, the measure included an automated voter registration program through the BMV. That language was stripped out last month.
“There are folks here who are ready willing and able to testify about this bill,” Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester argued.
“(This bill) deals with the most sacred right we have as citizens, the right to vote. And this bill would dramatically curtail that right in our opinion,” Brown argued. “Therefore, we believe that the additional testimony should be allowed, rather than rushing this bill in lame duck without thoroughly complete deliberation.”
The Republican-controlled committee pushed forward despite those protests. The members tacked on an amendment cutting the number of legally allowed ballot drop boxes from three to one, and then voted to advance the elections bill. Afterward they turned to the supermajority resolution and voted to advance that proposal as well. There was little fanfare. The whole process took about five minutes.
Except there was a problem. As Chair Shane Wilkin, R-Hillsboro, was preparing to gavel out, a representative from the Legislative Service Commission rushed over to stop him. After five minutes of whispered discussion, they reconvened and Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, explained he’d read the wrong amendment number.
After a bit of parliamentary wrangling the committee voted again to approve the proposal.
Speaking afterward, Rep. Brown voiced frustration about the lack of testimony and the fact Swearingen wouldn’t even respond to their questions.
“I’ve been here five and a half years in the House,” Brown said. “I believe that’s the first time I can remember where a sponsor failed to yield to a question, either in committee or on the floor.”
The elections bill
Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, is sponsoring the elections bill and grew visibly frustrated after the amendment hiccup. At one point he even interjected to prompt Swearingen to read the amendment number.
His measure heads for the House floor as a competing Senate measure advances as well. That proposal, backed by Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, would impose strict voter ID. Seitz insisted he doesn’t oppose such a provision, but left it out his bill because “they wanted pride of authorship.”
Another explanation is that voter ID is a pretty valuable bargaining chip. Seitz noted separately that his bill differs with the Senate by including online absentee ballot requests and seven days for them to arrive at boards of elections.
“They might want to shorten that,” Seitz allowed, “but they’re not going to take it back to zero. The original Senate bill said you had to turn them in no later than Election Day — I objected to that.”
Still, Seitz’s proposal is less generous than the 10 days allowed for absentee ballots to arrive under current law.
Seitz was also quick to head off criticism for the last-minute change reducing the number of drop boxes allowed per county from three to one.
“Our friends on the left today, ‘well, that’s not enough drop boxes,’” Seitz imitated. “Well, it’s one more than you got right now! Because right now, there is no legislative authority for any drop boxes whatsoever.”
The supermajority resolution
Afterward, HJR 6 opponents who didn’t get a chance to voice their opposition in the committee room spoke in the hallway instead. Anthony Caldwell with the Ohio Nurses Association criticized lawmakers’ rapid pace.
“Whether you’re a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, or a nurse, you know what an emergency looks like, and this is not an emergency,” he said.
“They really haven’t articulated a need to change it,” Mike Weinman with the Fraternal Order of Police argued.
“What do they anticipate is coming down the pike that they don’t like?” he went on. “And that’s what it comes down to — trying to snuff out whatever Ohio voters would like to do in the future.”
One such possibility is an amendment to protect abortion. Monday, a newly formed Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom coalition announced its plans to put forward an amendment protecting abortion access. In its introductory press release, the organization acknowledged the supermajority provision throws a wrench in their plans.
“A campaign timeline has not yet been announced,” the coalition said. “The organizations are working as expeditiously and strategically as possible to identify the proper timing, while also realizing this is a precious opportunity that must be thoughtfully executed.”
A second group, Protect Choice Ohio, also announced plans Monday to put rights to abortion care to Ohio voters via a constitutional amendment.
The House has two floor sessions scheduled this week on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as an “if needed” session next week. House Speaker Bob Cupp said most of his caucus doesn’t think it’s needed.
“Four days before Christmas, they think maybe they’re needed somewhere else — and I agree,” Cupp said.
As of Monday afternoon, though, HJR 6 or HB 294 weren’t part of the Tuesday floor schedule. Cupp confirmed that if the proposals get a vote it’s “probably not until Wednesday.” On HJR 6, Cupp hinted that some members of his caucus have expressed misgivings about the idea showing up in the lame-duck session.