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Ohio lawmakers are likely to change election laws, again
Elections officials advise them to focus on the little things that matter, not photo IDs

Karen Kasler
Courtesy of Romulus Mihalteanu
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In The Region:

The men and women who run Ohio elections wrapped up a three-day conference in Columbus last week, just in time for state lawmakers to return to the capital, where they’re likely to take up changes in Ohio election law.

As statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports, county elections board members and workers have lots of ideas on how to make elections run smoother.

Legislators have been changing election laws a lot over the last two years. So Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted opened the Ohio Association of Elections Officials conference with his list of what he wants lawmakers to take on now.

He started with Congress and the Help America Vote Act – passed in 2002 – which required all states to invest in new voting machines. 

“Congress hasn’t fully funded HAVA at the levels initially authorized; either provide the funding or remove the mandate and return the matter back to the states and the local elections officials.”

Those local officials, who run the 88 county boards of elections are evenly split – by law – between Republicans and Democrats. But regardless of party, they have to deal with election law changes at both the state and federal level. Husted’s comments on voting machines were exactly what Scioto County Board of Elections Deputy Director Teresa Knittel, a Democrat, wanted to hear. 
“In my opinion, yes, that’s the major thing. Because our voting machines are, I mean, we’re starting to have a lot of problems with them – like on Election Day, we had a lot to go down.”

Mish-mash of equipment
Some counties use machines that scan ballots; some use electronic voting machines. And some have both. Knittel says she’d like to see uniform standards for voting machines across the state, which has two types of machines now.

Husted didn’t talk about uniform standards for voting machines. But he did talk about uniform days and hours for voting at boards of elections offices.

Husted set uniform hours in last fall’s presidential election, eliminating weekend voting. The triggered allegations he was trying to suppress the vote in the urban areas that use weekend voting the most, and the Obama administration sued. A judge restored the weekend voting hours.

Husted said it’s time for lawmakers to create one set of hours for everyone. 
“For reasonable people, there is nothing controversial here.”

But there’s a running debate among elections officials about whether uniformity really is uniform – because voter turnout is far different in rural counties than in urban ones. Some say local offices should set their hours depending on their needs. Others say, with so many legislative and congressional contests crossing into multiple counties, each county needs to offer the same access to all voters.

Sweat the small stuff
Kimberly Zurz was director of the Ohio Department of Commerce and a Democratic state lawmaker. She’s now the deputy director of the Summit County Board of Elections.

She’s hopes the Republican-dominated state Legislature doesn’t  get caught up in controversial measures such as requiring photo ID for voters.  
“We can spend all of our time and spend all of our wheels on something like that, or we can really try to fix the things that are out there that we know would really help the system. So the focus has either really got to be on, ‘We want people to vote, or do we not want people to vote.’ And you just have to be frank about it, and work toward good solutions.”

Dale Fellows is the immediate past president of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials and the Lake County Republican Party chairman. He says he wants action on bills related to uniform hours, especially the final weekend of voting – and he worries that lawmakers might get distracted by other issues. 

“We hope that that doesn’t happen, but that’s certainly has happened in the past. And we’re hoping that now that 2012 is over, that they’ll get down to actually the nuts and bolts of the process.”

Husted also wants state lawmakers to consider working on online voter registration and online requests for absentee ballots, and on clearing up rules for provisional ballots. Those are the ballots that raise questions – such as mismatched addresses – on election day, and are set aside for verification and to be counted later.

A higher percentage of provisional ballots – 83.5 percent – were counted in the last presidential election than ever before. 

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