ALEC Legislator Introduces Bill to Suppress the Vote in Ohio

A freshman Ohio legislator and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) member introduced a bill in the state House on May 27 that would make voting even harder than it already is in the COVID-19 era. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the House State and Local Government Committee held hearings on the bill. The full House passed an amended and less damaging bill on Thursday mostly along party lines in a 61-34 vote.

As originally written, Republican Rep. Cindy Abrams's HB 680 prevented the state from mailing absentee ballot applications with pre-paid postage to every registered voter and likely would have canceled in-person early voting for the three days leading up to Election Day in November.

If the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a problem this fall, the need for absentee ballots will be greater than in past elections, and restricting early voting will likely lead to longer Election Day lines.

"We are afraid that, rather than learning from and fixing problems, many of the provisions in HB 680 would compound difficulties, leading to more trouble for voters and elections officials alike," Common Cause Ohio's Mia Lewis said on Wednesday in testimony before the House's State and Local Government Committee.

For all presidential and gubernatorial elections since 2012, the state has mailed unsolicited absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters, and Ohio's current Republican secretary of state wants to do this again in 2020. The original version of HB 680, however, would have ended the practice and added an extra step: an informational postcard notifying voters that they can request an absentee ballot. Under that proposal, voters would have to print out, add postage, and mail an application to their board of elections, or call the board and request an absentee ballot. Then they would receive a mail-in ballot, which they would have to add postage too and mail back to the elections board.

"Sending an informational postcard instead of an absentee ballot application adds an unnecessary step, complicates and lengthens the voting process for voters, and is burdensome for boards of elections," said Lewis.

The Ohio Association of Elections Officials said in a letter to Abrams on Monday that it is "imperative" to remove the restrictions on mailing absentee ballot applications.

Common Cause and the Secretary of State both favor allowing Ohio voters to apply for absentee ballots online, which would simplify and streamline the process.

Abrams appears not to have written her bill, according to Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer.

"Rep. Abrams is the sponsor of the bill, but it's clear that she isn't the author of House Bill 680," Turcer told CMD. "During her sponsor testimony, it became evident that she didn't realize the bill included changes to election administration beyond emergencies and the upcoming general election. Both Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State have mailed Ohio voters absentee ballot applications prior to major elections, and this bill would end this long practice that encourages vote-by-mail."

Rep. Abrams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, committee members advanced the bill to the full House after making changes. Lawmakers removed language that would have barred the Secretary of State from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to registered voters and authorized the state to use federal funds to pay for the mailing. Representatives also took out a provision that would likely have canceled in-person early voting during the three days before Election Day.

But several Democratic amendments didn't survive. Republicans voted against allowing counties to establish multiple early voting locations, requiring the secretary of state's office to pay for return postage for absentee ballot applications and mail-in ballots, allowing voters to apply for absentee ballots online, and other measures.

Despite chaos around the primary election, the law does not establish a plan if a public health emergency threatens to disrupt the general election.

The bill passed the full House on Thursday. On the floor, Democratic Rep. Brigid Kelly said that her office had received numerous calls from constituents who opposed the original bill and its amended version.

ALEC Returns to Voter Suppression

Abrams attended ALEC's States and Nation Policy Summit in December 2019. ALEC is a pay-to-play operation that brings together state lawmakers and big-business representatives to write corporate-friendly model bills that the lawmakers can take back and propose in their states.

After facing a fierce backlash for its role in promoting controversial voter ID and stand-your-ground laws, ALEC disbanded its Public Safety and Elections Task Force in 2012, saying, "We must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work."

However, the group has become involved in the Right's gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts again this year. ALEC recently announced a June 9 "exclusive call" for its members with a former FEC official and the Honest Elections Project, a new, shadowy group that The Guardian and OpenSecrets revealed to be an alias of the dark money-funded group formerly known as the Judicial Education Project.

Since its emergence a few months ago, the Honest Elections Project has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads that warn against voting by mail, alleging that the practice is ripe for fraud. The ads accused Democrats of cheating, calling vote-by-mail "a brazen attempt to manipulate the election system for partisan advantage" and echoing President Donald Trump's false claims about the practice. The Honest Elections Project has also written letters to state elections officials, using misleading data while calling for purges of voter rolls, and it has filed amicus briefs in favor of voting restrictions in states such as Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Almost all of the known funding of the Judicial Education Project, now called The 85 Fund, came from DonorsTrust, a charitable donation vehicle used by right-wing megadonors, including billionaire Charles Koch.

The Honest Elections Project is closely tied to Leonard Leo, the powerful legal activist who led the Federalist Society until recently, and to the Judicial Crisis Network, which spent millions of dollars helping to boost Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nominations.

Recent reporting by The Guardian and OpenSecrets reveals a deep-pocketed right-wing effort to both suppress voter turnout and install judges who will rule in favor of the voting restrictions they support.

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Alex Kotch is an investigative reporter based in Brooklyn, New York, and a contributor for the Center for Media and Democracy. A campaign finance expert, Alex helped launch money-in-politics website Sludge, and his work has been published by more than two dozen media outlets including International Business Times, The American Prospect, The Nation and Vice.com.