Ohio Legislator Pushing Bill to Limit Court-Ordered Polling Hour Extensions


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Recent court orders extending polling hours in Ohio have led one legislator – with support from many of his colleagues – to propose a bill that would use bonding requirements to discourage attempts to extend voting hours on Election Day. The Cincinnati Enquirer has more:

Ohio Republicans want anyone who goes to court to keep polls open longer on Election Day to hand over enough cash to cover the cost.

During the state’s primary March 15, polls were open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET statewide.

State Sen.Bill Seitz, a Republican from Green Township, Ohio, is proposing a change in state law that would require a cash bond, potentially worth thousands of dollars, before a judge could order polls to stay open past the scheduled closing time.

Seitz, who already has 40% of the other 22 Republicans in the 33-member Senate signed on as co-sponsors for his bill, said the goal is to prevent what he considers frivolous, last-minute court challenges that keep polls open late and create additional costs for taxpayers. The law also would set a higher standard for proving the need for longer hours and would allow for the immediate appeal of any ruling that extends poll hours.

“There will always be some excuse that some activist judge can seize upon,” he said. “Is this intended to retard these last-minute interventions? Yes, it is.”

Polling place extensions are getting more frequent in Ohio, but the bill was likely inspired by last month’s order after some polling places in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) were ordered to remain open after serious traffic problems late on Election Day:

Seitz said he was inspired to tighten those rules following this past November’s election, in which Judge Robert Ruehlman of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, a Republican, ordered polls to remain open an additional 90 minutes because of technical glitches that caused some delays on Election Day. He also said he was outraged last month when U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ordered polls to stay open another hour after receiving calls from motorists stranded on Interstate 275 because of a serious traffic accident.

Not surprisingly, not everyone thinks discouraging extensions is a good thing – and there are concerns it could limit access to the polls:

Critics contend the law is a bad idea in any court, state or federal. They say it’s unnecessary because adequate standards and appeal processes already are in place, and it’s unfair because poor voters would have a more difficult time protecting their voting rights if problems arise on Election Day.

Seitz’s proposal would waive the cash bond for poor people whom the court declares indigent. But if an indigent voter wins the case, the decision would apply only to that individual.

In other words, only that one voter would get to cast a ballot past closing time.

Polls wouldn’t stay open for anyone else unless the voter came up with the cash to cover the cost associated with extending hours for all voters, which could run into the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

“The bond requirement appears to be a deterrent to low-income people fighting for their right to vote,” said Jennifer Branch, a Cincinnati civil-rights lawyer who has filed many election law cases. “I don’t think it’s fair for Ohio election laws to be used only for the wealthy.”

Seitz isn’t worried about those concerns.

“So what?” he said. “If anyone else wants to file an affidavit of indigency, let them come in, too. They can do it.”

Hamilton County’s two party chairs also disagree about the bill, despite their shared disdain for the recent court orders – though the bill would likely end up pushing more petitions out of state courts covered by the bill:

“It’s common-sense legislation,” said Hamilton County’s GOP chairman, Alex Triantafilou. “We can’t have one judge without all the information totally changing the state’s election procedure. We have to stop this.”

His Democratic counterpart, Tim Burke, has his doubts. Burke is wary of tampering with state law, even though he and Triantafilou, who serves with him on the county’s board of elections, both think Dlott and Ruehlman were wrong to extend voting hours.

The courts already have rules and an appeals process that should guide judges and help them correct mistakes, Burke said. In Dlott’s case, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted is appealing in hopes of preventing a similar episode from happening in the future.

Burke may not always agree with a judge’s decision but said Seitz’s proposal goes too far. The cash bond requirement would mean anyone who sues in such a case would have to post a bond sufficient to cover all election expenses, including wages for every poll worker, up to $22.50 an hour.

In Hamilton County, which had 2,600 poll workers in November, that would come to $58,500. The money would be forfeited if an appeals court later determines that the polling places should not have been kept open longer.

“You need to be very, very careful when you start to infringe broadly on the rights of the court to protect voting rights,” Burke said.

Branch said such a state law might not matter since most election cases end up in federal court anyway. Seitz’s proposal would ensure that more cases start there.

If civil rights are at issue, Branch said federal judges would be under no obligation to follow any state law, including what Seitz wants.

It’s not hard to see why this bill gets support; court-ordered extensions pose tricky challenges which are very difficult for election offices, local government – and voters – to overcome. Still, cash bonding requirements for voters to protect their rights seem a rather strict means for limiting requests for extensions. The trick, as always, is to make extensions unnecessary through sufficient advance planning – but there has to be a better way to mange court-ordered extensions than essentially charging voters for access to the courts. Here’s hoping the two sides can find an acceptable middle ground – though that may be wishful thinking in a presidential election year in one of America’s fiercest political battleground states.

Stay tuned …

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