Ohio bill sets rules for last-minute orders on voting hours

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A bill headed to Ohio’s governor could make it harder for people to get a court order to keep polling places open late on Election Day in the key swing state.

The measure sets a process for state courts to follow when considering whether to grant a last-minute extension of voting hours. Such cases could stem from bad weather, voting equipment failures or other problems. People seeking emergency relief from the court would have to pay a cash bond for the polls to remain open passed their typical 7:30 p.m. close. And that amount, determined by a judge, could be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The bill’s supporters say it restores order to elections in the important presidential battleground. But opponents, including Democrats and the League of Women Voters of Ohio, say the legislation puts a price tag on the right to vote and the governor should veto it.

“Charging voters to keep the polls open is certainly tantamount to a poll tax and unconstitutional,” said state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Kent Democrat.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. John Kasich said he plans to review the bill.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who sponsored the bill, said his measure seeks to address recent last-minute court orders that have kept polling places open on Election Day.

“Elections become unfair when some counties have longer hours to vote than others,” Seitz told a House panel in testimony this month. “This could in turn lead to utter chaos where statewide or multi-county elections are close.”

Last year, a state judge ordered polls in Cincinnati and surrounding Hamilton County to remain open for an extra 90 minutes, leading to a statewide delay in reporting results on a marijuana legalization ballot issue. The extension came after a few precincts reported problems getting voters their ballots because of poll workers’ unfamiliarity with a new electronic check-in system.

Hamilton County Board of Elections Director Sherry Poland told a House committee that the board had 40 minutes to notify 2,500 poll workers and others about the change. As a result, she said, some voters couldn’t vote because their polling locations didn’t get the notice of the extended hours.

In March, a federal judge ordered polls in four southwest Ohio counties, including Hamilton County, to stay open for an extra hour during the presidential primary election because of a traffic accident affecting the region.

In written testimony, Poland said both orders caused confusion at a cost of more than $57,000 to the county’s taxpayers.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted backs the legislation, but has said he thought the new bond requirement was unnecessary. He also would be subject to paying the bond should he ask a state court to keep open the polls. He currently can’t extend voting hours without court approval and still couldn’t under the bill, his office said.

The League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio say the bill creates more problems than it tries to solve, while driving more cases to the federal courts.

Under the measure, the judge setting the bond amount must weigh the total cost of keeping polling places open, with workers collecting overtime — an amount that could be in the tens of thousands.

No bond is required for those deemed too poor to pay, Seitz said in an interview. Plus, Ohioans can vote early by mail or in person. Voters have 13 hours to cast ballots on Election Day, and those in line at 7:30 p.m. can still vote after the polls close.

“If you don’t want to risk having to pay a bond, the answer is get in line by 7:30,” Seitz said.

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