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A bill to reform Ohio election laws, House Bill 194, has been a consistent source of controversy since it was introduced last year.
The latest flap came on March 28 when the Ohio Senate passed a bill to repeal the law, which Democrats and others have called a "voter suppression" bill.
Although they oppose HB 194, largely because it restricts early voting opportunities, Democrats also spoke out against the bill’s repeal because there already is a referendum on HB 194 scheduled for this fall’s ballot.
Sen. Eric Kearney, who leads the Senate’s Democratic caucus, said voters have the right to decide the fate HB 194. He said Republicans were unconstitutionally taking away their right to referendum by repealing the law before the election on Nov. 6.
"This is the first time in Ohio history where a bill has been passed to stop a referendum," Kearney, of Cincinnati, said during the floor debate March 28.
The GOP-controlled Senate passed the bill to repeal HB 194 on a party-line vote that day, sending the bill to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Anytime an elected official utters the words "this is the first time in Ohio history," we at PolitiFact Ohio become instantly curious. So we decided to dig into Kearney’s claim.
First, it’s important to recognize that the legislation passed last month, Senate Bill 295, does not directly stop the referendum on HB 194. It essentially nullifies the referendum because it repeals the law, therefore there would be no law to put before voters.
Kearney’s larger point – that repealing HB 194 before the referendum vote is unconstitutional – is ripe for debate and, many lawmakers agree, likely will be decided in court if the House also passes SB 295 and the governor signs it.
An attempt to verify Kearney’s assertion that the repeal is unprecedented could help shed light on the situation. If the senator is wrong, a similar case could help answer the question of the repeal’s constitutionality.
We checked with several government and legal sources and could not find an identical situation in Ohio’s history.
The provision to allow Ohioans to challenge a law passed by the General Assembly was included in the Ohio Constitution in 1912, according to a history of ballot issues maintained by the Secretary of State’s office.
Mike Rowe, spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said the caucus’ legal staff could not find a similar case despite research that looked at the Ohio Revised Code, legislative records and discussions with staff members.
Republicans in the Senate and House also came up empty.
Senate GOP spokeswoman Angela Meleca said the caucus’ legal staff, along with the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, looked back and could not find another case of the General Assembly repealing a bill that is up for a referendum.
"There was nothing that matched or fit this scenario," Meleca said.
Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, testified before a Senate committee on March 21 that the Ohio Supreme Court had never addressed the question of repealing a bill up for a referendum.
"If we’re all hitting the same wall and not finding anything, I’m not sure it’s there," Davis said in an interview.
There was one case with similarities, but it fell short of exactly matching the repeal of HB 194.
Lawmakers passed a bill last year to establish new congressional districts. The legislation replaced districts established by an earlier bill, House Bill 319, that spurred a referendum effort backed by Democrats. But when the second bill, House Bill 369, passed with a new map, the referendum effort ceased because the new maps replaced the old ones involved in the referendum.
The partial repeal of HB 319 is different, though, because Democrats dropped their bid to collect the signatures needed to get a referendum on the ballot. In the case of HB 194, Secretary of State Jon Husted last year certified that petitioners met the requirements to place the referendum on the November ballot.
So Kearney appears to be on solid ground. But it is important to remember the bill to repeal HB 194 has not been passed in the House. So the repeal is not official yet, although Republican House Speaker William G. Batchelder supports it.
Nevertheless, the experts we talked to all agreed that Kearney’s point that the repeal would be a first in Ohio history is accurate.
On the Truth-O-Meter, his claim rates True.
Interview with Mike Rowe, spokesman for Senate Democrats
Interview with Angela Meleca, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans
Interview with Mike Dittoe, spokesman for House Republicans
Interview with Carrie Davis, executive director, League of Women Voters of Ohio
Interviews with staff members at the Ohio Legislative Service Commission
Proposed Constitutional Amendments, Initiated Legislation, and Laws Challenged by Referendum, Submitted to the Electors, brought up to date through 2011 by Jon Husted, Ohio Secretary of State
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