- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Two proposals passed Tuesday by a Republican-dominated legislative panel in Ohio could impact how soon voters cast early ballots and how they receive absentee ballot applications in the presidential battleground state.

Ohioans can cast an absentee ballot by mail or in person without giving any reason. Currently, the state’s early voting period begins 35 days before Election Day.

One proposal that cleared the House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee Tuesday afternoon would trim the number of days by eliminating so-called golden week, a time when residents can both register to vote and cast an early ballot. The bill would move the start of early voting to the first day after voter registration ends, which is typically 29 days before Election Day.

More than 59,000 voters cast early, in-person ballots during golden week in the 2012 presidential election, according to estimates from the secretary of state’s office. That number does not include residents who voted by mail, though roughly 1.1 million had requested absentee ballots to do so that week.

State Sen. Frank LaRose, the bill’s sponsor, says same-day registration and voting doesn’t give boards of elections enough time to properly verify registration applications.

The overlap “perpetuates an election system that is susceptible to voter fraud,” LaRose, of Copley Township, has said in written testimony on the bill.

Democrats argue the state should not focus on rolling back early voting opportunities but rather expanding them.

“We don’t have a problem in Ohio with too much early voting,” said state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, of Kent, a Democrat on the House committee.

Republican Gov. John Kasich has declined to say whether he would sign the bill.

“We’ll see what the provisions are, and how I feel about it, and what I think is fair,” Kasich told members of the Ohio Newspaper Association when asked about the proposal last week.

The House committee approved the bill on a party-line vote of 8 to 5, along with a separate proposal that would restrict when absentee ballot applications could be sent to voters and who could send them. The full House is expected to vote of the proposals next week. The Senate passed earlier versions of both measures.

Traditionally, Ohio’s larger, urban counties have mailed voters absentee ballot applications without residents having to request the paperwork.

Under the proposal, the secretary of state could mail unsolicited applications for general elections and only if the Legislature directed the money for it. Other public officials would be banned from sending unsolicited applications to voters. It also would prohibit local boards of elections from prepaying the return postage on the applications.

Supporters say the change helps achieve fairness and consistency across county lines. But voter advocates and Democrats argue that not every county is the same.

“If you go by that argument, I guess every city should have the same number of fire trucks,” said state Rep. Ron Gerberry, of Austintown, the top Democrat on the House panel.

Republican state Rep. Andy Brenner, of Powell, said not all counties, especially those in smaller, rural areas, can pay to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications. And, he said, that creates an environment where voters are treated unequally.

The bill would allow Secretary of State Jon Husted to mail the applications to voters this fall.

Republicans who control the committee tabled Democratic efforts to let counties decide whether to send the unsolicited applications and prepay postage, among other proposed amendments.

Husted, a Republican, has said he doesn’t see the proposed application rules as problematic. His office does not have the money to send unsolicited applications beyond this year, and the Legislature would have to appropriate the dollars anyway.

“It’s become so popular that I would find it highly unlikely that the General Assembly would ever stand in the way of continuing to do it,” Husted told reporters last month.

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