Ohio Republicans quietly enacted a measure earlier this month that imposes sweeping new restrictions on voting access in the state, including stricter voter identification requirements, shortening the early voting period and giving voters less time to return their ballots for post office.
The new law puts Ohio among a handful of states with the country’s strictest voter ID rules. The state previously required voters to show identification at the ballot box, but made an exception for voters who could not, allowing them to show a bank statement, paycheck or other document that would prove their identity. The new law removes that exception and only allows someone to vote if they provide certain forms of photo identification.
These new restrictions will make it harder for people who tend not to identify themselves — the elderly, the disabled and the poor — to vote, voting rights advocates said.
“Black and brown communities have a greater number of communities that have no identity,” said Camille Wimbish, director of election administration for the Ohio Voice, a civic engagement advocacy group. “This will impact black and brown voters, students, rural voters, military voters, senior citizens. I mean, there’s really everybody who will be impacted by these substantial changes.”
It’s unclear how many Ohio voters don’t have IDs. A state legislature analysis estimated that there could be hundreds of thousands of people, according to a state legislative analysis. More than 3 million Ohioans have their driver’s licenses suspended each year because of outstanding debt, according to an analysis by the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
About 98% of voters in the state use a photo ID, said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Frank LaRose, the state’s top election official. More than 8 million people are registered to vote in the state.
State officials have pledged to provide free identification to anyone who does not have one. But even those using that process would face a cost in time and obtaining the necessary documents, polling groups say.
“Free is a questionable term,” said Wimbish. “The time it takes to leave work to go to [motor vehicle office], get in line for one, who qualifies for one. Then, of course, what if you don’t have the underlying documents you need.
The new measure also eliminates early voting on the last Monday before an election – normally a busy day. Instead, it extends the voting hours on other days. It also targets mail-in voting, which has increased in popularity during the pandemic. Now, the municipalities will only be able to offer a single ballot box, which must be available in front of the polling stations.
The new law also restricts the window during which voters must request and return ballots by mail. Voters must now request a ballot by mail seven days before Election Day instead of three. A ballot posted on Election Day now must arrive no later than four days after Election Day to be counted, down from the 10 days allowed.
Republican leaders in the state, which has long been seen as having well-managed elections, struggle to explain why the new restrictions are necessary, only noting that voter identification is a popular measure. “Election integrity is a significant concern for Americans on both sides of the aisle across the country,” Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, said when he signed the measure into law.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, another Republican, also defended the measure. “Ohioans clearly support photo ID for voting, and we found a way to make that happen to ensure voters are not disenfranchised,” he said.
However, LaRose himself noted last year that voter fraud is “extremely rare” in his state. Since taking office in 2019, he has referred 650 potential voter fraud cases for prosecution. This represents a rounding error in the tens of millions of people who voted in the same period (in the state, 6 million people voted in the 2020 general election alone).
“We have no problems with voter identity. Which is the only thing that highly rigid voter identification can fix,” said Jen Miller, president of the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Women Voters.
In tightening its voting laws, Ohio, a politically competitive state that has become more solidly Republican, joins several states that have moved to restrict access to the ballot in recent years. Republican leaders in those states, which include Georgia, Florida and Texas, also cited the need to improve voter confidence as justification for the measures. The new laws come after the 2020 election, which saw record turnout, including a growing number of black, Hispanic and other minority voters.
“The idea that they pass these laws or defend these laws when there was no evidence why these changes were necessary. And no input really from the public. Or opportunity to be heard on these issues. It’s alarming,” Wimbish said.
The new law also prohibits anyone from voting from their car or outside the polling place – a practice called curbside voting – unless they are “physically unable” to enter the building. Such language is confusing for people with disabilities, said Kevin Truitt, director of legal advocacy for Disability Rights Ohio. There are voters who may have a disability that can make it extremely difficult to vote in a polling place, even if they are technically able to physically enter.
“There could be reasons other than the physical inability to enter the polling place for someone to need to vote on the sidewalk,” he said. “There will be a need beyond the physical inability to enter the polling place. A person may be blind and physically able to enter the polling place.”
Supporters of the vote also warned about the way in which the legislation was passed. When state legislators met for a session last December, they abruptly inserted all the new restrictions into an uncontroversial bill. The last-minute changes gave voting experts little opportunity to assess them.
“I think it goes without saying that we were very disappointed in our legislature that they continued to introduce bills that we haven’t seen and haven’t had a chance to look at. And keep talking,” said Kayla Griffin, director of the Ohio chapter of All Voting is Local, a voting advocacy group.
A coalition of activist groups is already suing the state over several provisions of the law in federal court. They wrote in their complaint that Republican lawmakers who supported the measure were responsible for undermining faith in the election.
“There is no justification for the burdens that the [law] impose on Ohioans,” the attorneys wrote. “It will undermine confidence in an electoral system that rulers have co-opted to consolidate their positions of power at the expense of voters’ rights.”
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