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Analysis: Love it or loathe it, you need to get familiar with Ohio's new voter ID law now

people at voting machines
John Minchillo
Early voters at the Franklin County Board of Elections, on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Columbus.

Up until January, House Bill 458 — a set of sweeping changes to the way Ohio conducts its elections — was a subject of intense debate in Ohio political circles.

Now that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has signed it, it is still being debated, but it is now the law of the land.

The Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly who passed it and Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state who has to administer it, see it as another tool in the box to fight voter fraud.

To the voter rights groups who have opposed House Bill 458 — groups like the ACLU of Ohio and the League of Women Voters Ohio — it is a solution in search of a problem. One that could end up disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters in hope of combating a "problem" that barely exists.

"This bill is all about stopping people from doing something they rarely do anyway — impersonating voters — and harm a lot of other people along the way," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters Ohio.

"Voter impersonation is the only thing this law would address, which doesn't exist," Miller said.

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LaRose, in a January 29 video that ran on Columbus TV station WBNS, tried to shoot down the "solution looking for a problem" argument.

"It's kind of like saying carjackings are rare in my neighborhood but when it happens I want the police to investigate it and take steps to prevent that kind of thing from happening again," LaRose said.

"And voter fraud is rare in Ohio and that's great news," he added. "We should all want to keep it rare. And that's what things like this are all about — to keep voter fraud rare in Ohio and boost the confidence in our elections."

So how rare is it?

Very rare indeed. After the 2020 presidential election, LaRose's office referred 75 allegations of voter fraud to law enforcement agencies. That's 75 out of just over 8 million ballots cast.

LaRose's staff has said they don't know how many of those 75 have actually been prosecuted.

So, what's changing?

But, rare or not, the changes to how Ohio conducts its elections are coming; and both sides of the issue say that Ohio voters need to familiarize themselves with the changes in House Bill 458:

  • Voters will have to use an unexpired photo ID to vote — an Ohio driver's license, an Ohio-issued state ID card (which will be provided at no cost at Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices), a state or federal military photo ID or a passport. No more bank statements or utility bills as proof of identity.
  • Drop-boxes for absentee ballots will be limited to one location per county and may only be used during business hours during early voting.
  • Requires that absentee ballots be requested a full week before Election Day.
  • Eliminates the Monday before Election Day as an early in-person voting day at boards of elections.
  • Requires that mailed-in absentee ballots be received by boards of elections four days after the election, instead of the previous 10 days. Critics of the law say that is going to make it difficult for many military and overseas voters.  

In fact, Miller says, multiple voter groups could be adversely impacted by the new law — college students who move each new school year, elderly folks who no longer drive, and people with disabilities.

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LaRose says 98% of Ohio voters have valid photo IDs that they use to vote.

That may be true. But it begs the question — why should the other 2% be disenfranchised?

Both the 98% and the 2% need to know the rules going into this year's elections.

Miller said the League of Women Voters will lobby the legislature to provide money to the 88 county boards of elections to fund public education campaigns.

"These are the broadest changes to election law in Ohio since 2004," Miller said. "There's an obligation to educate the public about what the rules are now."

Hamilton County Elections Director Sherry Poland, who is first vice president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said the Hamilton County Board of Elections is already working on a public education campaign to familiarize voters with the changes.

But Hamilton County is one of the three largest counties in Ohio and has more resources to do that kind of thing on its own than do dozens of small, rural counties around Ohio.

Jade Martinez, a communications specialist for the ACLU of Ohio, put together an online list of five things you can do today to prepare for the May primary.

One of the most important things on that list is to check to make sure your photo ID has not expired. Expired driver's licenses, state ID cards, military IDs or passports will not be accepted for voting.

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LaRose had a message for critics of House Bill 458 in his video.

"Partner with us," LaRose said. "Instead of beating the hyperbole drum and scaring people about these things, let's make sure Ohioans know, whether it’s this May or in November, if they don't have an ID, there's plenty of time to get one right now. And it doesn't cost them anything to get one."

Miller said LaRose's plea for House Bill 458 opponents to "partner with us" on public education is not an easy thing to accomplish.

"We've asked repeatedly for meetings with the secretary of state and, so far, we have not gotten any response," Miller said. "Makes it rather hard to 'partner' with him, doesn't it?"

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.