File-Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks

In this Feb. 20, 2020, file photo, Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks in Columbus, Ohio.

(The Center Square) – A new Ohio law that stops government election officials from collaborating with private groups does not stop officials from carrying out their normal duties, according to an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, however, said Yost’s opinion creates more confusion and leaves election officials in fear of prosecution.

The election reforms were passed as part of the state budget after failing to make it out of the House when they were introduced with other election changes as a standalone bill. The new law prohibits any public official from collaborating with nongovernmental groups or individuals on any election-related activity.

County prosecutors, election officials and groups that work on voter education and outreach asked for Yost’s opinion on “collaborating” and penalties.

Yost concluded the law prohibits public officials from collaborating with nongovernmental people or entities only when the public official is acting in his or her official capacity.

“It does not, for example, prohibit a board of elections member from serving on a political party central or executive committee,” Yost wrote.

Yost also said boards of election can conduct voter education that outlines voter identification, absentee ballots, provisional ballots and other requirements. The secretary of state also can authorize youth mock voting programs run by volunteers, and boards of election can advertise voter registration information in newspapers.

It would be allowable for election officials to speak and provide election information and register voters at an event hosted by a nongovernmental entity, Yost said.

Sweeney, though, still believes election officials are concerned with the possibility of facing first-degree misdemeanor or fourth-degree felony charges for collaborating with voter advocates.

“Most of us recognize it is every elected official and every American’s job to protect our democracy and our freedom to vote,” Sweeney said. "But the Attorney General missed an opportunity to reassure voters and election officials that they can partner on voter registration, education and access efforts in our communities without fear of prosecution. His opinion leaves confusion instead of the clear instruction local officials sought. No election official should fear prosecution for doing their job.”

Regional Editor

An Ohio native, J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher.