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Ohio set to pass tough new round of voting restrictions

Ohio Republicans are set to pass a new round of restrictive voting laws that could limit ballot access in this year’s midterms and the 2016 presidential race.
A voter drops off a provisional ballot at the Board of Elections in downtown Cleveland.
A voter drops off a provisional ballot at the Board of Elections in downtown Cleveland, on Election Day Nov. 6, 2012.

Ohio Republicans are poised to pass a new round of restrictive voting laws this week. Taken together, the measures could limit access to the ballot in this year’s midterms and the 2016 presidential race, and revive the obscenely long lines at the polls that plagued the Buckeye State a decade ago.

No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and it remains the single most pivotal state in presidential elections. That status is giving an added intensity to the battle over voting rights there.

The Ohio House could vote as soon as Wednesday on two GOP-backed bills. One would cut early voting from 35 to 28 or 29 days. More importantly, it would end the so-called “Golden Week” period when Ohioans can register and vote on the same day—a key way to bring new voters into the process. The other bill would put limits on 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 Tuesday, and have already passed the Senate.

A third bill scheduled for a Tuesday hearing and already passed by the Senate would make it harder for provisional ballots to be counted—though a full vote on that measure isn’t expected this week.

Republicans say cutting early voting and ending the Golden Week would save money and reduce the chances for fraud—though a thorough investigation by Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, turned up almost no evidence of fraud. And they say the absentee ballot restrictions are needed to create uniformity among counties across the state. 

State Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat and voting rights champion who is running for secretary of state, pushed back against both of those arguments.

"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. "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, but not the only ones. Late 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, they say, are both likely to mean more voters show up on Election Day itself. 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 maximum number of voting machines that counties must provide, and you could see a return to the bad old days of 2004.

That year, some voters in minority and student-heavy areas waited as long as 10 hours to cast a ballot, turning Ohio into the poster-child for voting problems. A Democratic study estimated that around 174,000 people left before voting because of the lines. President George W. Bush won Ohio, and with it the election, by 119,000 votes. After reforms were instituted, voting went far more smoothly in 2008 and—despite scattered problems—in 2012.

In a report released last month, a bipartisan panel of experts appointed by President Obama recommended expanding, not contracting, early voting opportunities, including no-excuse absentee ballots. And they warned that “expansion of pre-Election Day voting should not come at the expense of adequate facilities and resources dedicated to Election Day.”

The scenario Ohio is close to enacting—fewer opportunities to vote early, and fewer resources for Election Day—appears not to have occurred to the report's authors.

Late Update, 4:56pm: The bills to cut early and end same-day registration, and to make absentee voting harder, passed out of committee Tuesday afternoon on party-line votes. Both may receive full votes in the House Wednesday. But since minor amendments were made, they would also need to return to the Senate for additional votes.