Funding cut threat for absentee ballots eliminated

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Counties that mail out absentee ballots in violation of state law will no longer face the threat of losing funding after a committee in the GOP-led Ohio House removed language from Gov. John Kasich's midterm budget Tuesday following strong pushback from both Democrats and Republicans.

House Finance Chairman Ron Amstutz announced the House Finance Committee's plans hours before Cuyahoga County Council voted Tuesday night to assert home rule powers and mail unsolicited absentee ballots to voters if the state doesn't.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, a Democratic candidate for governor, cited the budget amendment in his request Tuesday for a federal investigation into whether laws signed recently by Kasich are intended to suppress Democratic and minority votes. The budget amendment would have stripped 10 percent of local government funding from any county that circumvents state ballot distribution rules.

Both Kasich and Secretary of State Jon Husted spoke out against the funding sanctions and urged fellow Republicans to remove it.

In his letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, FitzGerald said the county had put several laws in place to reach a population heavy with renters, transient residents and the homeless. That included same-day registration and voting, expanded weekday and weekend hours, and mailed absentee applications complete with postage-paid envelopes.

He said it was important for the county to take action.

"This is hardball politics at its most cynical and crass, and we are in a position, fortunately, to stand up to the power of the state," FitzGerald told the county council, which passed his plan on an 8-3 vote.

Under Ohio law, all voters will receive absentee ballots in the mail ahead of the November general election, Husted said.

"There's no reason for Cuyahoga County to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and violate the state law for a service that's already being provided," he said. "Having said that, it's no reason to cut the local government fund and penalize the people there for the actions of their leaders."

Kasich told reporters after an event in Lockbourne that he didn't support legislative efforts to penalize Cuyahoga County.

"We don't support that," the Columbus Dispatch quoted Kasich as saying. "I just don't think you use the local government fund -- it's not there to be used like that. I just think it was not a well-conceived idea."

FitzGerald announced the investigation at a Cleveland news conference.

"As a former FBI agent, this is not a decision that I make lightly, but a thorough investigation is clearly warranted to examine the recent actions that would make it harder for working men and women to vote in 2014," FitzGerald said.

With nearly 1.3 million residents, Cuyahoga County is home to about 11 percent of Ohio's population. About a third of residents are black and a majority Democrat.

Husted defended the uniform voting hours that Ohio has put in place across the state.

"The state law, federal court rulings and common sense dictate that all voters should vote by the same set of rules," he said. "That's the definition of equality. It's not 'Animal Farm': Some people are more equal than others."

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Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and Kantele Franko contributed to this report.