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Ohio elections officials group opposes bill to change laws on voting machines, counting ballots

Voters line up in Columbus on the first day of early voting for the August special election.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Voters line up in Columbus on the first day of early voting for the August special election.

The Republican sponsor of a bill that makes a lot of changes to voting laws says it’s about stopping hackers and blocking cybersecurity threats. But the group that represents the people who would have to put those changes into place is solidly against the bill.

House Bill 472 would make changes in the name of improving election security in Ohio, in a system that even the sponsors call the "gold standard" for elections. But they’ve so concerned elections officials that the trustees for the bipartisan Ohio Association of Elections Officials voted unanimously to oppose it.

“We agree with the sponsors that we want to have safe and secure elections in Ohio," said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials. "But unfortunately, we also recognize that many of the provisions that are contained in the bill actually move us in the wrong direction.”

But Rep. Bernie Willis (R-Springfield), one of the bill’s two Republican joint sponsors, said the elections officials are misunderstanding the bill.

“And that's kind of apparent in some of the comments that have come out from the elections officials group saying that we're basically going to throw all of the computerized election machines in the trash," Willis said. "And that is just not the core or the beginning or any intent that was ever in the bill.”

But Ockerman said the bill would require voting machines to be certified to a voluntary federal standard that will likely start being tested after the 2024 elections. He said that means machines counties purchased with $115 million in state money would be decertified.

Willis said that’s not the case, but he said the concerns about cost are valid. That money question led the County Commissioners Association of Ohio to vote to oppose the bill too.

Each county can buy whatever voting machines it thinks are best. 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.

A dispute over the purchase of Dominion machines by a conservative group in Stark County ended up at the Ohio Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on whether the meeting where the decision to buy the machines was made violated Ohio’s open meetings law.

Bill would also allow hand counting of ballots, ban scanning of early ballots before election day

Another point of contention is a provision that would allow boards of elections, county commissioners or voters to institute hand counting of ballots.

"It is costly, it is time consuming and perhaps most importantly, it is highly inaccurate. All the studies have shown where this has been attempted show you can expect to have inaccuracies in the 4-5% range," Ockerman said. "And if you think about all the contests that are decided by less than four or five points, you have now created basically a de facto reason for any candidate to challenge that election."

Hand counting of ballots is something 2020 election deniers have pushed for, but Willis said that’s not where this provision comes from. He said it makes hand counting an option, in case there’s a security issue or a problem with a voting machine vendor.

“Several boards of elections officials have told us privately that it actually would save them money to do a hand count of ballots," Willis said. "That doesn't count, obviously, in the places where you have massive municipalities with lots of numbers, but there's nothing in the bill that says that you have to hand count ballots.”

The bill would also ban boards of elections from opening and scanning early absentee ballots before the close of the polls on election day. Ockerman said that will delay results.

"We don't count absentee ballots before election day, but we do process them before election day. We've been doing that for over a dozen years in Ohio because we know that yields better results, quicker results, more accurate results," Ockerman said. "And so why we would want to take Ohio in the direction of these other states where these problems have occurred is candidly baffling to us."

Willis said he doesn’t think not scanning early ballots till the polls close would cause delays, but he’d consider appropriating money to help with that, and the provision to require mail-in voters to enclose copies of their photo ID.

“There are lots of means out there to have either copies made for people, or I mean, there's just so many other resources that are available for folks," Willis said. "We've asked the question if there's a resourcing requirement that needs to go along with that, we're happy to appropriate money and dollars to be able to do that. But we're not getting answers back."

Opponents haven’t yet testified on the bill. Gov. Mike DeWine has said he’s not interested in changing more elections laws, and says the burden of proof is on supporters to show him the need for them.

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