A Cuyahoga County Council committee voted along party lines Tuesday to advance “voter rights” legislation that conflicts with a new state law, a move which takes the county closer to what Republican council members said could end up being a costly legal fight. The eight Democrats on council’s committee of the whole – which is made up of all 11 council members — voted to move forward with legislation introduced last month by county Executive Ed FitzGerald, a fellow Democrat, while the council’s three Republicans dissented. The move indicates council is poised to approve the legislation, which would assert the county’s right to mail out unsolicited early voting applications and addressed envelopes with pre-paid postage to all its registered voters, at an upcoming meeting. The legislation is a response to a new state law, passed by Republicans in Columbus in February, that forbids counties from mailing out the applications. The new law allows the Ohio Secretary of State to send them out, statewide, if lawmakers appropriate money to pay for it — Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted says he plans to do so this November. Republicans say the new law promotes voting equality across all Ohio’s 88 counties.
At Tuesday’s committee hearing, council’s three Republicans cited concerns over uniformity in elections that span multiple counties and the cost of a possible legal challenge.
Funding for each mailing would have to be approved by council. FitzGerald, who is running for governor, wants the county to perform a countywide mailing of absentee ballot applications for special elections, as well as general ones. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections estimated a general election mailing with postage and return envelopes would cost $267,000.
Councilman Dale Miller, a Democrat, said a fight for ballot access is a fight that’s worth picking. Even if the law were to be found contrary to state law, he said, the new state law could be found to be in violation of federal law. “We need to know how far our authority extends,” Miller said.