Hand-counted ballots, voter ID rules: How GOP lawmakers want to change Ohio elections

After signing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, Gov. Mike DeWine said the issue of election integrity in Ohio is settled.

Some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature appear to disagree.

A bill introduced earlier this month would further tighten the state’s voter ID rules, allow the hand-counting of ballots in certain cases, and require voting machines and electronic poll books to meet strict cybersecurity rules. The proposal comes over a year after DeWine signed a bill that enacted the photo ID requirement and other changes to the voting process.

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Unlike that law, House Bill 472 deals with complex, behind-the-scenes procedures for administering elections. Rep. Bernie Willis, R-Springfield, said the measure aims to revise outdated standards and ensure Ohio has a plan should it fall victim to cyberattacks before an election.

“If our constituents don’t believe their elections are secure ... it’s going to be very difficult for them to support their government,” Willis said.

Election officials have said voter fraud in Ohio is rare.

The bill’s prospects are uncertain. Secretary of State Frank LaRose said it includes some good ideas, but other parts are entirely unworkable or need significant revision. A spokesman for House Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, said he’s reviewing the bill, which will be assigned to a committee in the near future.

But voting rights advocates are already concerned, saying the bill creates unfunded mandates for election officials who are stressed and overworked.

“This totally upends our current election system in several different ways,” said Collin Marozzi, deputy policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

A woman votes at Blackburn Recreation Center in Columbus during Ohio's March 19 primary.
A woman votes at Blackburn Recreation Center in Columbus during Ohio's March 19 primary.

What would the new Ohio election bill do?

Under the State House Bill 472:

  • Ohioans would be required to provide a Bureau of Motor Vehicles-issued driver’s license or state ID to register to vote and vote by mail, unless they have a religious objection to being photographed. Voters can currently use their Social Security number.

  • Counties would have to hand-count ballots if voters approve the procedure in a general election. To put the question on the ballot, a group must submit a petition signed by 2% of voters in the county.

  • Voters flagged as non-citizens have 30 days to confirm their citizenship with election officials, or their registration will be canceled.

  • Absentee ballots that aren’t properly sealed in envelopes wouldn’t be counted unless the voter appears at the board of elections to seal it.

  • The state auditor would annually audit the statewide voter registration database and three county registration systems.

“Hand-counting has been upheld by people who are perpetrating disinformation as a more accurate way to run elections,” said Nazek Hapasha, policy affairs manager for the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Willis argued the bill could set a “national standard” and said much of it was designed to help local boards of elections. For instance, officials who receive a voter registration or update form would immediately have to verify the person’s information and whether they’re still alive. Willis said that can prevent headaches down the line, such as someone voting who isn’t eligible.

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Under the legislation, voting machines and electronic poll books cannot be connected to the internet or a telecommunications network. Voting systems must also adhere to certain security standards and updated, voluntary federal guidelines that are still being rolled out.

It’s already illegal in Ohio to connect voting machines to the internet.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said it’s important to maintain confidence in elections but added that lawmakers can’t “keep going back to that well with further bills dealing with the same thing in a different way without different fact patterns.” The Ohio Association of Election Officials is still reviewing House Bill 472, said the group’s executive director, Aaron Ockerman.

“The notion that our voting machines are compromised in any way is not accurate, and it’s not how our current rules operate,” Marozzi said. “It’s all based on this notion that we can’t trust our election results. We know we can trust them. We know they’re accurate. We know they’re secure. The entire reasoning behind this bill, in my opinion, is just flawed.”

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Voter ID laws, election security top of mind for Ohio Republicans