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Board rejects Ohio election chief's plan to attach prepaid postage to mail-in ballots

Secretary of State Frank LaRose's fellow Republicans on the state's powerful Controlling Board led the charge against him.
Credit: AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, discusses election issues on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, during a news conference at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.

A proposal by Ohio’s elections chief to attach postage to every mail-in ballot failed to gain crucial approval Monday, making it all but impossible for ballots to be stamped in time for the November election.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose's fellow Republicans on the state's powerful Controlling Board led the charge against him, with the panel voting 4-2 along party lines to reject the request.

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“This should be a legislative issue,” said GOP state Sen. Bob Peterson, voicing the key argument that sank the spending appeal. State Sen. Bill Coley, another Republican, said LaRose's request was going beyond the authority given to his office by lawmakers and asking them to “look the other way.”

LaRose had asked the board to approve $3 million in funds from his offices Business Services Division for the postage. He appeared personally at their virtual hearing to make his case, arguing strongly that it was within the law.

“A no vote today is a no vote that is over the objection of our bipartisan election officials and over my objection as the state's chief elections officer,” LaRose said.

The request represented a last-ditch effort by LaRose after a package of election changes he proposed in May stalled in the GOP-led Legislature. He pitched it as an “innovative solution” for paying postage that would make “every mail box a drop box for millions of Ohioans” and not require spending of state and federal budget dollars.

To board members' pushback, LaRose argued that the same fund has been used in the past to pay for voting machines, poll worker training and election-related legal fees.

LaRose's effort failed despite support from two former Ohio governors — Democrat Richard Celeste and Republican Bob Taft. The pair wrote a joint letter to committee members last week expressing strong support for ballot postage.

“Voting is not a Democrat or Republican issue — it's an American issue,” they wrote. “That is why, when the world is facing a pandemic, we must show the courage to take additional steps to empower voters seeking to exercise their sacred right.”

Peterson, the No. 2 leader in the Senate, attended the hearing while recovering from COVID-19, said Senate spokesman John Fortney. His illness has required Senate President Larry Obhof to quarantine. Another Ohio state senator, Republican, Frank Hoagland, has had and recovered from the virus, Fortney said.

Democrats have contended that LaRose already has both the power and the authorization he needs to add drop boxes and to pay ballot postage. LaRose has said that his lawyers tell him he still needed either legislative authorization or the Controlling Board's clearance.

LaRose issued the following statement after the decision:

“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 October 6 through November 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 October 6. Make a plan. Don’t procrastinate. Make sure your voice is heard.”