COLUMBUS — Leaders in the Ohio House delayed a vote Wednesday night on a contentious measure that would repeal a new election law that reduces early voting opportunities in the presidential battleground state.
The new law has been on hold since September, when opponents gathered enough signatures to get a referendum put before voters this fall.
The repeal measure was poised for passage Wednesday by the Republican-controlled House when the House speaker moved to delay the vote. House Speaker William Batchelder told reporters the delay came after he got word that opponents who brought the ballot question might be willing to strike a deal with lawmakers and possibly remove the referendum from the ballot themselves.
The Fair Elections Ohio campaign gathered more than 300,000 valid signatures from Ohioans to get a referendum on Nov. 6 ballots to ask voters whether they wanted to get rid of the overhaul law.
Among other changes, the overhaul trims the swing state’s in-person early voting window from 35 days before Election Day to 17 days, and the period for absentee voting by mail from 35 days to 21. It also cuts off in-person early voting on the Friday evening before Election Day.
Supporters of the repeal measure contend it would leave in place old rules governing Ohio elections before the overhaul law was passed last summer. But the repeal bill also would reaffirm a technical change made last year in a separate bill that resulted in early voting ending on the weekend before the election.
Democrats and Fair Elections Ohio want those final days of in-person voting restored. Otherwise, they say the bill is not a “clean” repeal and would not effectively give voters the same voting options they had before the overhaul bill’s passage.
House Minority Leader Armond Budish, D-Beachwood, said he alerted Batchelder that the Fair Elections Ohio campaign would be willing to discuss possibly removing the referendum if the bill was a straight repeal that included wording to allow people to vote on the busy in-person voting days right before the election.
Batchelder has expressed reservations about a legislative repeal of the bill that’s the subject of referendum. He says there is no precedent for it, and it’s unclear what the courts would do.
Batchelder said that he did not think negotiations with Fair Elections Ohio were an option prior to Wednesday when he was approached by Budish, but he said he is willing to let the discussions continue.
Greg Moore, campaign director of Fair Elections Ohio, said the group has gotten pretty far in their talks with some Senate Republicans and House Democratic lawmakers, but there was no agreement before the bill was called up before the House was to vote.
Moore said the delayed vote in the House allows them and Fair Elections Ohio more time to work to get the final voting days included in the repeal bill. It also allows his group to examine any legal concerns they have about a legislative repeal of the bill and its possible removal from the ballot.
He said a true repeal of the measure would restore final weekend voting, and the Legislature would have to completely repeal the overhaul measure before it could possibly be taken off the ballots.
He said there were some in his coalition who believe that the “right of referendum is sacred” and are hesitant to remove it.
“We’re very sensitive to the right of the referendum and how this could impact future citizens’ initiatives,” Moore said.
Moore said talks started Wednesday morning and they have included the possibility of also restoring weekend voting in a Senate measure that’s separate from the repeal bill.
“We didn’t wake up this morning thinking that this was where we were going to arrive,” Moore said.