Ohio Official Blasts ‘Sickening’ Voting Restriction

Alice Ollstein Political Reporter, Think Progress

In Ohio’s March 15 presidential primary, a car crash blocked a major highway near Cincinnati, leaving thousands of people stranded in their cars as the polls were set to close. A local judge received calls from voters frantic about losing their chance to cast a ballot, and ordered the polls to remain open just one hour later than scheduled. Now, a Cincinnati Republican is pushing a bill to make sure it’s much more difficult, and expensive, to get such an emergency extension in the future.

If legislation sponsored by Republican State Senator Bill Seitz is approved, anyone petitioning a judge to extend voting hours would have to put up a cash bond to cover the cost, which could range in the tens of thousands of dollars. If a court later finds that the polls should not have remained open, the voter would forfeit all the money. Only those who are so poor they can be certified as indigent would be exempted.

Rep. Dan Ramos, a Democrat who represents the working class Lorain community, told ThinkProgress he finds the effort “sickening.”

“This has been par for the course, ever since the Republicans took control of the House. They’ve been trying to do everything they can to make it more difficult to vote,” he said, noting the state’s cuts to early voting hours, voter roll purges, and attempts to block some students from voting in the primaries. “Now they’re saying the only way a person can have access to courts for voting is if they’re a wealthy person.”

The bill is already gaining support in Ohio’s House and Senate, where Republicans hold majorities. The first hearing on it will be held this week. Though Seitz has said the purpose of the bill is to save taxpayers money, Ramos sees a partisan agenda.

“What types of places would be allowed to stay open? Only wealthy areas, where people tend to vote Republican,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people in my district with that kind of cash laying around.”

Yet voting rights experts are reassuring Ohioans that the bill wouldn’t do too much damage even if it became law, since it only dictates the actions of state courts, and the vast majority of poll extension motions are filed in federal court. Gary Daniels with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio told ThinkProgress the measure is “unnecessary.”

“Making people pay a bond in order to ensure their voting rights are protected on election day is a further barrier to voting in Ohio, of which we already have plenty,” he said. “People can debate whether a particular extension is frivolous or not. But it seems like overkill to completely blow up the system. I’m worried that what simply is going to happen is that people won’t go to court to file these motions.”

Daniels added that he has seen polling extensions requested due to a number of unexpected problems, from internet outages to poorly trained poll workers to extension cords that are too short for the voting machines to reach the room’s outlets. “It’s never the fault of the voter, but this bill says that you, the voter, have to pay for this,” he said.

This November, the swing state of Ohio could tip the scales and decide the presidency. Since 2008, when some Ohio voters waited 10 hours to cast a ballot, the state’s Republican leadership has passed an array of new voting restrictions, some of which are being challenged in court for suppressing voters of color. One of those legal challenges succeeded last year in restoring some of the Sunday and evening early voting hours the administration had slashed, but Ramos says more efforts are needed.

“We want to make sure everyone who wants to vote can vote, and participate in a way that fits the reality of their economic circumstances,” he said. “The Great Recession is not yet over in Ohio. Lots of people working two or three jobs to survive, and these are not nice white collar job like we legislators have. I can take an hour in the middle of the day to go vote, but most people can’t do that.”

Ramos introduced a bill in March to expand the number of early voting sites so that one is available for every 60,000 residents. Currently, some counties have just one open site to accommodate more than a million residents.

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This has been reposted from ThinkProgress.

Alice Ollstein is a Political Reporter at ThinkProgress. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered and Telesur. Alice is originally from Santa Monica, California.

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