• Election Reform Answers Public Concerns
  • February 3, 2006 | Authors: Maria J. Armstrong; Christopher N. Slagle
  • Law Firm: Bricker & Eckler LLP - Columbus Office
  • The 2004 Presidential election in Ohio proved to be one of the most spirited presidential campaigns in history. Ohio's election system was littered with widespread allegations of voter registration fraud by third party special interest groups, rampant complaints of voter intimidation at polling locations, and confusion regarding the counting of absentee, provisional, and regular ballots. Numerous lawsuits, election contests and recounts, and scores of investigations at the federal, state and local level followed.

    The litigation, recounts, investigations and reviews ultimately revealed a less-than-perfect Ohio election process, but one which was not fatally flawed. Amended Substitute House Bill 3 (HB 3), passed on January 31, 2006, is the Ohio General Assembly's answer to meaningful election reform.

    This summary is not intended to be a thorough review or detailed analysis of this complex legislation. Readers are encouraged to review the bill in its entirety or consult legal counsel for specific guidance. Significant provisions are as follows:

    Voter ID Requirements. In response to wide scale reports of voter registration fraud or irregularities, HB 3 requires that new registrants provide proof of identity in order to register to vote. Among the most significant of HB 3's provisions, Ohio voters are now required to prove their identity in order to register and vote. Valid proof of identity can take several forms, all of which are acceptable under the new law. In addition to traditional photo IDs, Ohio law permits voters to use a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other document that contains the voter's or registrant's name and current residence address. Voters or registrants who cannot, or will not, provide the required identification are still permitted to cast a provisional ballot. The new voter identification requirements apply to all facets of the election process, including registration, voting and absentee voting.

    Voter Registration Reforms. Massive efforts by third party organizations to register new voters in Ohio resulted in abuses or mistakes by some groups. HB 3 addresses these problems by requiring individuals, who are paid to register voters, to submit the voter registration forms to the appropriate authorities in a timely manner. Boards of election are required to process new registration cards quickly and to notify new registrants that they are properly registered, where they can vote, and that they will be required to either show proper identification or sign an affirmation when they appear to vote.

    HB 3 also requires that official voter registration lists are prepared 14 days before an election and be publicly available for inspection. The validity of registrants can still be challenged under current law, although HB 3 modifies the timeframes and procedures for such challenges. HB 3 also requires the secretary of state to prepare and maintain a current statewide voter registration database in accordance with federal law.

    Provisional Ballots. Confusion about provisional ballots and the application of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) also prompted reform. HB 3 specifically defines the guidelines for provisional voting in Ohio. In sum, the provisional ballot requirements describe 14 categories of provisional voting to assure that no individual will be turned away at the polls for any reason without being given an opportunity to cast a provisional ballot. HB 3 establishes a process for casting, verifying, and counting provisional ballots.

    Absentee and Military Ballots. HB 3 amends Ohio law to clarify that any voter who has requested or voted through an absentee or military ballot, and then appears at their polling location, must be given a provisional ballot. Absentee or military ballots must include the appropriate form of identification, as that term is defined by law. Finally, the new law specifies who may deliver or collect absentee ballots.

    Polling Place Activity. In response to reports of improprieties at the polls, including illegal campaigning, harassment or voter intimidation, HB 3 includes several new provisions. For example, penalties for interfering with an election by loitering in a registration or polling place are enhanced. HB 3 prohibits campaigning in any line of electors, even if that line extends beyond 100 feet of the polling place. The bill also establishes a private cause of action for electors who have been harassed.

    Finally, the authority of election observers (formerly "witnesses") is changed. Observers may no longer challenge an elector's right to vote, but they are permitted to take a greater role in observing the verification and counting of absentee and provisional ballots.

    Local Candidate Solicitation. Current law prohibits a candidate for state or county office from soliciting campaign contributions from employees of that office. HB 3 extends the ban to municipal offices and other political subdivisions. Voluntary contributions are still permitted. Clarification is also made for laws prohibiting retaliation against employees for making or refusing to make campaign contributions.

    Campaign Finance Laws. HB 3 also contains a series of changes to various campaign finance laws. Political clubs, as that term is defined in the law, are exempted from the definition of a political action committee. Multi-beneficiary campaigns are established to allow two or more candidates for the same office to establish and operate a single campaign committee. Current laws requiring campaign finance statements at mid-year for certain candidates and at other times for initiative or referendum petition committees are amended.

    Miscellaneous Provisions. HB 3 contains a number of additional provisions. Some of the more significant reforms included in the bill are:

    • Filing dates for write-in candidates, protest actions, and local option election petitions are amended.

    • Increase in the number of signatures needed on a nominating petition for municipal court judge or clerk.

    • Establishes procedures by which the Secretary of State must publish instructions to the boards of election.

    • Prohibits the secretary of state or attorney general from serving in certain official roles in support of a candidate, initiative or referendum campaign.

    • Requires that an initiative petition only contain one proposed law or constitutional amendment.

    • Clarifies the residency requirements for petition circulators and prohibits convicted felons from circulating petitions.

    • Eliminates the ability to file an election contest in a federal office election.

    • Establishes guidelines for "attorneys in fact" who may assist disabled individuals to register, vote or sign petitions.

    Amended Substitute House Bill 3 was passed by the House and the Senate on January 31, 2006, and signed by Governor Taft on the same day. Many of the provisions of the bill become effective May 2, 2006, while others are effective on June 1, 2006.