Ohio lawmakers passed two restrictive Republican voting bills Wednesday night, raising the prospect that casting a ballot this fall could be much more difficult, especially for minority voters.
With Ohio remaining the key presidential swing state, the changes could also affect the 2016 election.
The state Democratic Party said immediately that it would sue in federal court to block the laws.
“In 2014, I never imagined that I would be in a statehouse trying to fight for the rights to vote,” said state Rep. Alicia Reece, a Democrat, on the floor.
On party lines, the House voted 59-37 to approve a GOP bill that would cut six days from the state’s early voting period. More importantly, it would end the so-called “Golden Week,” when Ohioans can register and vote on the same day. Same-day registration is among the most effective ways for bringing new voters into the process, election experts say.
The House also voted by 60-38 to approve a bill that would effectively end the state's successful program of mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters. Under the bill, the secretary of state would need approval from lawmakers to mail absentee ballots, and individual counties could not do so at all. Nearly 1.3 million Ohioans voted absentee in 2012. The bill also would make it easier to reject absentee ballots for missing information.
The Senate quickly approved minor changes to both bills and sent them to the desk of Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, who is expected to sign them.
Republicans say it's useful to create a clear interval between the registration and voting periods to cut down on the chnace for fraud, even though GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted has admitted fraud is extremely rare. And they say that different counties shouldn't have different standards for mailing absentee ballots.
During the House debate, Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat, read the names of Ohioans who she said were prevented from voting because of minor errors on their absentee ballots.
"Explicitly or implicitly, this bill disenfranchises those among us who have historically been most disenfranchised,” said Rep. Dan Ramos, a Democrat, about the absentee ballot bill.
Late last year, Republicans passed a bill that reduces the number of voting machines that counties must have on hand for elections, and that makes it easier to remove voters from the rolls.
Taken together, all three bills could lead to much longer lines at the polls on Election Day. In 2004, Ohio was the poster-child for Election Day problems, with an estimated 175,000-plus people leaving before casting a ballot.