Ohio’s restricted voting law is a disaster

Earlier this month, Ohio enacted a restrictive law that, without good reason, would make it harder for many voters to cast a ballot. The measure passed the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature late last year and was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, also a Republican, on Jan. 6 — exactly two years after the uprising at the U.S. Capitol. Curbing voting rights is a disgusting way to commemorate the brazen attack on American democracy.

Ohio law makes it difficult to vote multiple ways while failing to improve the security of the election system.

First, it imposes a strict photo ID requirement to vote, making it one of the strictest ID laws in the country. Photo ID laws are not inherently bad. Law matters in detail. On this score, Ohio’s law is unnecessary and harmful. Hopefully, the courts will also find it unconstitutional.

Before the law was passed, Ohio voters could use a number on a driver’s license, military ID, utility bill, bank statement, or paycheck, among other documents, when checking in to vote. Now, however, the list of acceptable IDs has narrowed considerably. A voter must have an Ohio driver’s license, state identification, a US passport, or a military ID. The ID must contain the person’s name and photo and must not have expired. No other identification will suffice. A voter who does not have a valid ID can fill out a provisional ballot, but it will not be counted unless the voter goes to the county board of elections within four days after the election to show an ID. (A voter with a religious objection to being photographed can fill out an affidavit to that effect at the election or board of elections office within four days of the election.) The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican state Senator Theresa Gavarone, said, “We want to encourage people to vote, but On top of that, we want to give people that extra layer of confidence that we’re doing something right here in Ohio.” But the photo ID law has just the opposite effect: It discourages people from voting while doing little to prevent fraud. Impersonation in person—the only type of fraud that ID laws can prevent—doesn’t exist to any measurable degree. Hardly anyone is appearing for polls pretending to be someone else.

Studies have shown that strict photo ID requirements can disenfranchise voters, particularly affecting minority communities where citizens are less likely to have a driver’s license or other government ID. So, this new law does not prevent fraud, but it harms voters. It’s a solution in search of a problem.

If Ohio had looked to its southern neighbor, Kentucky, it could have seen how to properly implement a photo ID law. Kentucky boasts an extensive list of acceptable IDs for voting and a fail-safe system for voters who don’t have one. Kentucky IDs do not have an expiration date, meaning a student ID is sufficient. A voter without a photo ID can show a non-photo ID such as a Social Security card or credit card, fill out an affidavit under penalty of perjury explaining why they don’t have an ID, and then vote using a regular ballot. This process reduces the number of provisional ballots, meaning voters do not have to take extra steps to count their ballots. Election officials do not need to process additional ballots after Election Day, so they can better oversee the voting process.

The Kentucky law resulted from a compromise. Its bipartisan support—not to mention its plausibility—gave it an air of legitimacy and avoided protracted litigation. (Full disclosure: I worked on the compromise bill.)

Ohio’s law, by contrast, was a discriminatory measure, and a lawsuit is already underway to overturn the law. While federal courts have been very deferential to states on voting rules and have upheld some voter ID laws in the past, Ohio’s law is an extreme outlier that should not be subject to judicial submission.

The Ohio law makes other nonsensical changes to the state’s election administration. It excludes disabled voters, stating that “[u]In no other circumstances shall a voter vote in a vehicle or at the door of a polling station.” There is no evidence that curbside voting is subject to fraud. This simply makes it easier to conduct balloting on election day, shorten lines at voting machines, and help physically challenged citizens and the elderly, who may find it difficult to wait in line even if they don’t have a disability. This was useful in many places during the COVID-19 pandemic. If local election officials want to implement curbside voting to help their polling stations run more smoothly, the state shouldn’t stand in the way.

The law limits drop boxes for absentee ballots to one per county, located on board of election properties. Of course, Ohio counties are of different sizes, so this measure creates significant disparities in the ease of ballot distribution. These differences will again fall disproportionately on minority voters who tend to live in large cities. Vinton County (the least populous Ohio county) with a population of less than 13,000 would have a drop box, as would Franklin County, the state’s most populous county, which includes Columbus and has more than 1,300,000 residents. And, again, drop boxes don’t lead to fraud. Many states allow multiple, secure drop boxes without issue. Washington, DC, has them in secure locations across the city, in all eight wards, with no widespread fraud. Ohio’s measure makes it harder to deliver ballots without improving the integrity of the election system.

It is an off year for elections in most states but not for overall democracy. Rules enacted now will significantly affect elections in 2024 — and beyond Ohio begins 2023 with a terrible example for the nation and a terrible policy for its citizens.