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Ohio Governor Poised To Make Voters Pay To Keep Polls Open Late

Voters line up outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections for early voting in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN
Voters line up outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections for early voting in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/AL BEHRMAN

Republican lawmakers in Ohio approved a bill late Wednesday night that would force residents to put up a cash bond when they petition a court extend voting hours during an election day emergency, such as a natural disaster. If Gov. John Kasich (R) signs the bill, Ohio could become the first state in the nation to make voters risk losing tens of thousands of dollars of their own money when making the case for keeping the polls open a few extra hours.

The bill’s author, Republican Sen. Bill Seitz of Green Township, wrote an op-ed this week about his motivation for pushing the measure.

“Sadly, in both the November 2015 and March 2016 elections, rogue courts in Hamilton County issued orders extending polling hours. These orders cost Hamilton County taxpayers $57,000, and forced the inside poll workers to stay around for an extra 60 to 90 minutes after already working a 14-hour day.”

In the instances he’s citing, local courts ruled that true, unforeseen emergencies — a software glitch in 2015 that temporarily wiped out the poll books and a massive car wreck in 2016 that cut off the county’s main highway — justified keeping the polls open longer so that a few thousand waiting voters wouldn’t be disenfranchised.

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Mike Brickner with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says the bill now before Gov. Kasich would make it much more complicated and expensive to respond to such emergencies in the future.

It brings back a lot of ugly symbolism with the poll taxes of the past, when you had to pay to exercise your right to vote.

“Maybe the polling place lost power, or there was a tornado, or the machines malfunctioned, and voters were not able to vote during the day,” he explained. “Now these people could be disenfranchised through no fault of their own. They can do the right thing and try to show up to vote, but they may not be able to wait around for hours if they have to work or go pick up their kids. Plus, [the cash bond provision] brings back a lot of ugly symbolism with the poll taxes of the past, when you had to pay to exercise your right to vote.”

Only Ohio residents who are so poor they can be certified as indigent are exempted from the cash bond requirement. Brickner notes that for most “regular, middle class people” putting up tens of thousands of dollars is “cost prohibitive,” and would discourage any attempt to apply for an emergency extension.

The bill, introduced in April, was fast-tracked by the Republican-controlled legislature, and was approved in a marathon voting session Wednesday along with more than 40 other bills. Every House Democrat, including State Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent), voted against it.

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“I think it’s unconstitutional,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s tantamount to a poll tax to require voters to post a cash bond, and we really need to have the ability to petition state or federal courts if there is some type of emergency necessitating the extension of polling hours.”

Clyde noted that just yesterday, a federal court ruled that cuts to early voting hours approved by Ohio Republicans over the past few years are unconstitutional, and ordered the state to reverse them. The court found that voters of color were disproportionately harmed by the cuts.

In light of that ruling, Clyde expressed dismay that “the GOP continues on their march to make voting harder in Ohio.”

Republicans in favor of the bill countered that Ohio’s voting laws are “more than generous” and that lawmakers “bend over backwards to ensure that all Ohioans have the opportunity to vote.”

This November, voters in the swing state of Ohio could decide which parties controls the White House, and potentially, the Senate. President Obama’s narrow wins in 2008 and 2012 show that something as small a few extra days of early voting or the ability to extend polling hours in an emergency could tip the scales. Ohio is also being sued for purging nearly 2 million voters from its rolls over the last five years.