Ohio Republicans are poised to pass a new round of restrictive voting laws this week. The measures could limit access to the ballot in this year’s midterms and the 2016 presidential race and revive the long lines at the polls that plagued the Buckeye State in 2004.
No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and it remains the most pivotal state in presidential elections.
The Ohio House could vote as soon as Wednesday on two bills. One would cut early voting from thirty-five to twenty-eight days. It would end the “Golden Week,” when Ohioans can register and vote on the same day. The other bill would limit the state’s successful absentee ballot program, forcing election officials to get approval from lawmakers before mailing out absentee ballots. Both bills are scheduled for hearings on Tuesday and have already passed the Senate.
A third bill already passed by the Senate would make it harder for provisional ballots to be counted. A full vote on that measure isn’t expected this week.
Republicans say cutting early voting and ending the Golden Week would cut the chances for fraud, though an investigation by Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, turned up almost no evidence of fraud.
State Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat and voting rights champion running for secretary of state, pushed back. “Despite the fact that cases of voter fraud are exceptionally rare, many legislators persist in curbing voting opportunities in its name,” Turner told msnbc in an email, in reference to the early voting cuts. “They are determined to make it harder for thousands of Ohioans to cast a ballot in order to stamp out an almost miniscule amount of fraud.”
As for the absentee ballot restrictions: “Uniformity has too often meant a uniform lack of access,” said Turner, who is an msnbc contributor. “Local boards of elections know their voters best and should, within certain parameters, have the flexibility to craft a system that works for them. Ohio’s largest county has 95-times the population of the smallest – these differences need to be accounted for.”
The new bills would be the strictest voting laws passed by Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature yet. Last year, lawmakers approved a bill that makes it easier for the secretary of state to remove voters’ names from the rolls and reduces the number of voting machines that counties must have on hand for Election Day.
It’s the combined effect of all these measures that has Buckeye State voting-rights advocates worried: Cutting early voting and ending same-day registration are both likely to mean more voters show up on Election Day. Making it harder to vote absentee—something 1.3 million Ohioans did in 2012, when the state sent absentee ballots to all registered voters—will have the same effect. Now throw in the reduction in the number of voting machines that counties must provide, and you could see a return to 2004.
That year, some voters in minority and student-heavy areas waited as long as ten hours to cast a ballot. A study estimated that 174,000 people left before voting because of the lines. President George W. Bush won Ohio, and the election, by 119,000 votes. After reforms were instituted, voting went far more smoothly in 2008 and in 2012.
In a report released last month, a bipartisan panel of experts appointed by President Obama recommended early voting opportunities, including no-excuse absentee ballots.