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Republicans on Controlling Board Reject LaRose Request to Fund Postage on Absentee Ballots

Written by Midwest Direct

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on September 14, 2020.  Copyright 2020 Hannah News Service, Inc.  

Despite his best efforts to convince them otherwise, all four Republicans on the Controlling Board Monday voted down a request from Secretary of State Frank LaRose that would allow him to use funds from his own office to pay for postage on absentee ballots.

LaRose appeared himself at the meeting, which was held through video conference, and stressed that he has the authority to pay for postage, he just needed the authorization to transfer the funds to do so. He also argued that doing so will get voters to send back their ballots to boards more promptly, which is more important this year because of the pandemic.

Sen. Bob Peterson (R-Sabina) said the issue is normally in the purview of the Legislature, and pointed to House passage of HB680 (Abrams), legislation sitting in the Senate that forbids the secretary of state from paying for postage on ballots in addition to a ban already in the Ohio Revised Code on county boards of elections' paying for postage. Peterson said a funding issue such as this does not normally come before the Controlling Board.

LaRose said he had made a request to pay for postage to the General Assembly on May 6 as part of a bigger package that he said would assist his office for this election. The Legislature chose not to act on his request. Going forward, he said he is supportive of a ban to pay postage, but because "this is not a normal election," he felt it was necessary to do so for this election.

LaRose also noted that 20 other states, both led by Democrats and Republicans, are paying return postage this year and that it does not benefit one party over the other. Peterson argued that those states have explicitly included the authority in the law.

Sen. Bill Coley (R-West Chester) also questioned LaRose about what authority the secretary of state has to pay for postage. LaRose noted that his predecessors often used business services funds to pay for elections costs, and his immediate predecessor, now-Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, funded the operation of his office out of the fund. Other secretaries of state used the fund to purchase voting machines, train poll workers, and defend elections-related litigation.

"It is not an uncommon practice to use this fund," he said.

Both Republican House members of the Controlling Board, Rep. Scott Oelsalger (R-North Canton) and Rep. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro), also made their opposition clear, saying their chamber voted in HB680 to prohibit the practice, and that they believe Ohioans have plenty of opportunities to cast a ballot before Election Day.

Oelslager said he is loathe to change the rules so close to the beginning of absentee voting. Wilkin said he believed it would be disrespectful to vote to approve the request after the House voted not to allow it.

In response, LaRose said the Legislature also weighed in on the topic of paying postage during a pandemic, authorizing it for the primary earlier this year. He said he would not support paying postage as a routine matter, but this year, many Ohioans do not believe going to the polls is the safest option for them. He said has spoken to voters who told him that if postage is paid for, they will likely return the ballot faster. He added that he doesn't believe it is the cost of the stamp that keeps people from sending back the absentee ballot right away, but that many Ohioans don't necessarily keep postage around when they pay most of their bills online.

LaRose added that it has support from the Ohio Association of Elections Officials. He said they can logistically get it done if it gets authorized.

Rep. Jack Cera (D-Bellaire), who supported the request along with Sen. Vern Sykes (D-Akron), asked Controlling Board President W. Fletch Zimpher if this type of action to move money around has been done by the Controlling Board before. Zimpher said establishing appropriation authority is something the board has done in the past.

After the Controlling Board rejected the request, LaRose issued a statement saying that it was the last realistic opportunity for the Legislature to act on his request and that there is not enough time to put something else together. His office said the U.S. Postal Service as well as a major contractor of county boards of elections have communicated that three weeks were necessary to ensure ballots sent on Oct. 6 would have postage applied.

“Ohio has a sound elections system, but today was another missed opportunity by the Legislature to make a small change, without an impact on our state budget, that would yield a big improvement. Ohio voters have 216 hours to vote early in person from Oct. 6 through Nov. 2, 13 hours to vote on Election Day, or they can request an absentee ballot by mail and it will be sent to them beginning Oct. 6. Make a plan. Don’t procrastinate. Make sure your voice is heard.”

Democrats pushed LaRose to push forward on the request without the Legislature, telling him to use federal CARES Act funding to pay for it.

“Republicans have repeatedly made it clear that they are not interested in making this general election as accessible as possible during a pandemic,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron). “But as Democrats have continued to point out, the secretary of state does not need additional legislative approval to make this happen. We urge Secretary LaRose to use existing federal funds to ensure Ohioans have access to absentee ballots this fall.”

LaRose said that is not possible, as most of the CARES funds went directly to the county boards of elections.

"Of the remaining CARES dollars, my office spent the vast majority -- roughly $1.5 million -- to send an absentee ballot request to every eligible voter. The minimal remaining unencumbered balance is not nearly sufficient to pay for statewide return postage and is needed to provide our county boards of elections a safety net for unforeseen emergency purchases to carry out safe, secure and accurate elections this fall," LaRose said.

Paying for postage on absentee ballots also had the support of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), but he said Senate Leadership did not go along with his recommendation. He also noted that as chairman, he is statutorily named as a Controlling Board member, but Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina) has named a replacement for his seat on the panel this session.

"With the COVID-19 pandemic imposing challenges for voters, combined with the current shortage of poll workers and both political parties in Ohio encouraging supporters to vote, I think pre-paid postage on return absentee ballots is the right approach for 2020," Dolan said.

In a separate request from the secretary of state's office to pay for a television and radio ad campaign for the upcoming election, Cera said that there has been confusion in his counties and other areas over whether voting by mail is safe. He said he hopes any effort by the secretary of state stresses that Ohio has been doing this kind of voting for years and that it is safe. LaRose's office assured Cera that it is an issue that he has been working on and that the television and radio ads are just one part of the public service outreach.

Peterson also questioned the Ohio EPA on an item to acquire and restore four properties on the Western Lake Erie watershed, continuing to share his philosophical belief that the government should avoid holding property that can be used for private purposes.

Gretchen Craycraft, a legislative liaison for the Ohio EPA, said that the acquisition of the 207 acres of property is the result of a lawsuit settlement, and that the agency will not be the long-term steward of the property. When asked about converting some of the property that was farmland to wetlands, Craycraft said less than 50 acres were productive farm area, and that the owners wanted to sell the land.

The item was approved without objection.

Two requests from the attorney general addressing the lead cleanup at outdoor gun ranges for the Ohio Police Officer Training Academy were deferred at the request of the attorney general's office.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on September 14, 2020.  Copyright 2020 Hannah News Service, Inc.  


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