To help voters, Husted's election reforms need work: Robert M. Brandon
Op-Ed by Robert M. Brandon appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 3, 2011.
Voters in Ohio have experienced many changes in how elections are administered since 2004. Early voting options have expanded to accommodate more voters with increasingly busy and unpredictable schedules and greater clarity has been brought to how students can register and vote in their college communities. But there is room for improvement and Secretary of State Jon Husted has proposed reforms suggesting that more can be done.
Husted's stated goals -- to improve overall access and accuracy -- are laudable. And some of his basic suggestions are worthwhile steps in the right direction. Overall, however, the package of proposals ignores necessary reforms and includes a number of proposals that would restrict, rather than expand, voter access.
Joining eight other states that already have online registration will bring Ohio into the 21st century and provide a more convenient and secure way to register. Allowing for address updates online would also provide convenience to voters while reducing the number of provisional ballots cast on Election Day. In an increasingly hectic and mobile society, these reforms are both practical and necessary.
However, by restricting the online options to those who have an Ohio driver's license or Bureau of Motor Vehicles-issued ID card, Husted is setting the stage to deny modern, convenient options to the voters who need them most: the elderly, the poor, the disabled, students who have moved into the state and workers relocating to find work. Many of these voters will not have Ohio BMV-issued ID, and there's no reason they should need it in order to register or update an address online.
Security's not an issue: Just as with mail-in registration, voters could provide the last four digits of their Social Security numbers for data matching or present ID before voting for the first time, whether in person or by mail.
Nor is a driver's license or BMV-issued ID necessary for elections officials to have a signature on file in the event they might need it for comparison. Reforms could allow for those without driver's licenses to provide handwritten electronic signatures as we do at banks or stores and/or the ability to provide a signature before voting the first time.
Husted rightly acknowledges that electronic poll books could help reduce the number of provisional ballots used in Ohio by giving poll workers access to current registration information.
But to really fix Ohio's provisional ballot problem, more is necessary. Half of the rejected provisional ballots in 2010 were rejected because they were cast in the wrong precinct, even though the voter should have been directed to a different precinct (which is sometimes no more than a different table in the same building). The law should be revised to allow provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct to count for the issues and candidates a voter would have been able to vote for if he or she had received the correct ballot.
The proposal to require registrants who don't have a driver's license or BMV-issued ID to provide a full Social Security number (instead of the last four digits) is also problematic. Given concerns about identity theft and given the use of volunteers and temporary workers during the voting process, it would likely dissuade many from filling out the application in the first place.
Early in-person voting is popular with voters and many believe it has led to greater participation. Yet Husted wants to cut the time period for early in-person voting in half and eliminate it on the weekend before Election Day. He also wants to bar county elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to every voter and paying return postage on applications or voted ballots, something a number of counties do currently. These reforms further limit -- instead of expand -- voter access.
Husted's goals are good, but his proposed solutions need work. Reforms should modernize the administration of Ohio's elections while making the ballot box more accessible to all eligible voters. Instead, the secretary of state's proposals would roll back significant advances while passing up opportunities to truly fix what's broken.
Robert M. Brandon is the president of the Fair Elections Legal Network In Washington, D.C. The Fair Elections Legal Network is a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to remove barriers to registration and voting and to improve overall election administration.