Last year, all Ohio voters got absentee voter applications – whether they requested them or not – as a way to settle a fight over whether counties could send out those forms unsolicited. Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow reports a state senator has a plan that he says will settle this issue in the future, but not everyone’s on board with the proposal.
The debate over unsolicited absentee voter applications first heated up in the fall of 2011. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald wanted to send these forms to every voter in his county, which gives those individuals a chance to request an absentee ballot.
Secretary of State Jon Husted disagreed with FitzGerald because of the lack of uniformity it would bring among the other counties.
As part of a compromise, FitzGerald agreed to hold off on sending out the applications and instead, Husted’s office mailed them to voters throughout the entire state for 2012’s presidential election.
Now Republican Senator Bill Coley, of southwest Ohio, wants to lock down the rules on these applications in state law. His proposed bill says the Secretary of State can mail unsolicited applications for absentee voter ballots, but only on an even-numbered year and only if the General Assembly provides the money.
According to Coley, this is the best way to make sure every Ohio community gets the same amount of voter access.
“You know if you’re from small town Ohio or big city Ohio or suburbia Ohio," Coley said, "You’re gonna know that you’re voting under the same rules that everyone else is voting under.”
Senator Nina Turner, from Cleveland, opposes the bill and says the plan would end up limiting access for voters. The Democratic candidate for Secretary of State says the attempt for all out uniformity takes authority away from local elections officials.
“When people hear uniformity it sounds good—but unconditional uniformity is absolutely not right," Turner said, "What Senator Coley is doing in this bill is absolutely not right and I would hope that all Ohioans would see through this—this is nothing more than a veiled attempt to stop certain voters from being able to have the opportunity to vote.”
Coley says he created to bill in an attempt to mirror recent decisions from federal judge Algenon Marbley, who handed down several rulings related to voting in Ohio before the last presidential election. Coley adds that his bill takes away the ability to play political games.
“It’s been suggested that some political parties in certain areas can gain an advantage—one party or the other—can gain an advantage in certain areas by having their taxpayers pay for unsolicited mailings," said Coley, "And they believe they can derive a benefit from that and I think it best again to create uniformity throughout the state—everybody plays by the same set of rules.”
Turner: “See but that’s the problem don’t look at this as being which party has the advantage or disadvantage—the bottom line should be what is in the best interest of the voter—what is in the best interest of our democracy—and democracy works better when people vote—that should be the bottom line.”
Turner also says that the legislation would throw out votes for what she calls “overly technical reasons,” a claim Coley adamantly disputes.
“I don’t think Senator Turner understands the bill," Coley state, "This avoids the need for disqualifying ballots because you’re never going to have the situation again where this poll worker in this area completed the form this way—this poll worker in that area completed the form in a different way—the poll worker’s not going to complete the forms—the voter’s going to complete the forms.”
Coley says it’s important to send out the absentee ballot applications on the even-numbered years because that’s when the most voters turn out, the gubernatorial and presidential elections. But Turner says the bill, overall, goes in the wrong direction at a time when expanding access should be the order of the day.
Andy Chow at the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau.