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Republican lawmakers in Ohio are introducing a bill on changes to voting law

Republican lawmakers in Ohio are introducing a bill on changes to voting law

Absentee voters can drop off their ballots at this box on Court Street in downtown Athens.
Absentee voters can drop off their ballots at this box on Court Street in downtown Athens. (David Forster | WOUB)

The joint sponsors of House Bill 472 spent much of the first hearing touting cybersecurity protections, including required cybersecurity assessments and testing of voting systems. But they hailed it as “the gold standard for this country.”

“Our voting systems responsible for casting and counting our votes still exhibit many of the same security vulnerabilities that computer scientists discovered in them 20 years ago; vulnerabilities that could potentially allow skilled actors to change votes without leaving any trace,” said Rep. Bernard Willis (R-Springfield). “If your bank was still using a voluntary cybersecurity standard 20 years ago, would you feel like your accounts were safe?”

Ohio was one of 21 states targeted by hackers during the 2016 election, and a would-be hacker briefly tried to break into the system but failed. The Secretary of State’s office reported an attempted hack of his office on Election Day 2019, but a spokesperson called it “straightforward and unsuccessful.”

Among other items in the 256-page bill from Willis and Rep. Bob Peterson (R-Washington Court House) is a provision that would allow counties to count ballots by hand, rather than with machines, by decision of the Board of Elections, county commissioners or voters.

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

“I’m trying to figure out, why would counting the ballots by hand make that more secure?” Grim asked. “I think this is more susceptible to user error.”

Willis said there are only three voting machine companies with equipment in Ohio, so the state is in something of a “vendor lock situation.” He said this would allow provinces to prepare a contingency plan in the event of a cyber attack.

“I would say that we don’t have a contingency plan in place for us, that we haven’t provided the resources to get a county together, especially a small county, and say, ‘Hey, do we have our ducks in a row here? ‘ be able to count the ballots within a 24-hour period?’ Then we would be remiss if we didn’t at least give them the latitude and opportunity to do that,” Willis said. “We rely on the electronic systems to such an extent that we will literally shut down our elections if we have a massive security cyber attack, which is a great possibility as we see more and more happening in different areas.”

Twelve Ohio counties are using equipment from Dominion Voting Systems, which reached a $787 million settlement with Fox News in a lawsuit alleging the network defamed the company with lies and conspiracy theories about its machines.

HB 472 would also make changes to voter identification requirements, requiring almost all voters to have a driver’s license or ID when registering to vote or voting by mail. Under current law, voters can register and vote by mail using the last four digits of a Social Security number. And the bill requires a voter to cast a provisional ballot if an election official determines that their photo ID does not match their appearance.

“This is not a partisan bill. We believe that everyone desires a secure election and a secure election process,” said Peterson.

“I honestly don’t believe it’s a nonpartisan issue. I really think it is a voter suppression bill,” Grim said.

Voter fraud is very rare in Ohio and in the US, which has been confirmed several times by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose. But he also echoes former President Trump’s voter fraud claims, saying on social media in 2022: “It’s an even bigger problem in other states where laws and leaders are weak. President Trump is right when he says voter fraud is a serious problem.”

HB 472 would also ban election boards from scanning early ballots before polls close on Election Day. Currently, they scan ballots when they receive them during the early voting period, although boards of elections can determine when they are scanned and results are not released until after the polls close.

An analysis from the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan agency that reviews legislation for lawmakers, explained this this way: “This is because under the bill, if a voter appears to have cast both an absentee ballot and a provisional ballot, the provisional ballot has priority. The board should wait to scan the ballots until it can determine whether any of the voters who returned the absentee voter’s ballots are identified in the poll book as having cast a provisional ballot.”

The executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials said this would delay results, and that both parties are known to scan ballots during the entire 28 days of early voting to release results as quickly as possible. But Aaron Ockerman said the organization is still reviewing the bill and has not yet taken a position on it.