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Ohio bill on voting law changes would require security reviews, allow hand-counting of ballots

Ballot scanning machine in Delaware County
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
Ballot scanning machine in Delaware County

More than a dozen of the most conservative Republicans in the Ohio House have signed onto a bill that would make changes in state laws regarding required voter ID, early voting and voting by mail - all to increase security in the system. The bill also includes a provision allowing an action that’s been pushed by some 2020 election deniers.

The joint sponsors of House Bill 472 spent much of the first hearing on it touting its cybersecurity protections, including required cybersecurity reviews and testing for voting systems. But they praised it as "the gold standard for this country."

"Our voting systems that are responsible for the casting and tallying of our votes still possess many of the same security weaknesses that computer scientists found in them 20 years ago; vulnerabilities that allow skilled actors to potentially alter votes without leaving any trace," Rep. Bernard Willis (R-Springfield) said. "If your bank was still using a voluntary cybersecurity standard from 20 years ago, would you feel that your accounts were secure?"

Ohio was one of 21 states targeted by hackers during the 2016 election, and a potential hacker attempted briefly to get into the system and failed. The Secretary of State's office reported an attempted hack into its office on election day in 2019, but a spokesperson called it "unsophisticated and unsuccessful."

Among other items in the 256-page bill from Willis and Rep. Bob Peterson (R-Washington Court House) is a provision allowing counties to use hand-counting of ballots instead of by machines, by decision of the board of elections, the county commissioners or voters.

In that hearing, Rep. Michele Grim (D-Toledo) noted the sponsors said they think Ohio’s elections are secure.

“I'm trying to figure out, why would hand counting ballots make that more secure?" Grim asked. "I would think that would be more prone to user error.”

Willis said there are just three voting machine companies with equipment in Ohio, so the state is in "kind of a vendor lock situation." He said this would allow counties to put a contingency plan in place in case of cyberattack.

"I would say that us not having a contingency plan in place for us, not having provided the means for a county to huddle together, especially a small county, and say, 'Hey, do we have our ducks in a row here to be able to hand count ballots and do this in a 24-hour-period?' Then we would be remiss to not at least give them the leeway and the ability to do that," Willis said. "We are counting on the electronic systems to the extent that we will literally shut down our elections if we have a massive security cyberattack, which is a great possibility as we see more and more happening in different realms."

Twelve Ohio counties use equipment from Dominion Voting Systems, which secured a $787 million settlement with Fox News in a lawsuit that claimed the network defamed the company with lies and conspiracy theories about their machines.

HB 472 also would make changes in required identification for voters, requiring nearly all voters to have a driver's license or state ID when registering to vote or voting by mail. Current law allows voters to register and vote by mail using the last four digits of a Social Security number. And the bill would require a voter to cast a provisional ballot if an elections official determines their ID photo doesn't match their appearance.

"This is not a partisan bill. We believe everyone desires a safe, secure election and election process," said Peterson.

"I honestly don't believe it is a nonpartisan issue. I really do think it's a voter suppression bill," Grim said.

Voter fraud is very rare in Ohio and across the U.S., which has been confirmed by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose multiple times. But he has also echoed the voter fraud claimsmade by former president Trump, saying on social media in 2022: "[i]t’s an even bigger problem in other states where laws & leaders are weak. President Trump is right to say voter fraud is a serious problem."

The bill also would ban boards of elections from scanning early ballots before the polls close on election day. Currently boards scan ballots as they receive them over the early voting period, though boards of elections can determine when they will be scanned and results aren't released until after the polls close.

An analysis from the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan office that reviews legislation for lawmakers, explained that this way: "This is because under the bill, if an elector appears to have cast both an absent voter’s ballot and a provisional ballot, the provisional ballot takes priority. The board must wait to scan the ballots until it can determine whether any of the electors who returned absent voter’s ballots are indicated in the pollbook as having cast a provisional ballot."

The executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials said that would delay results, and that both parties are on record supporting scanning ballots over the full 28 days of early voting to get results out as quickly as possible. But Aaron Ockerman said the organization is still reviewing the bill and has not taken a position on it.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.