In 2009, the state reached a settlement in a lawsuit involving Ken Blackwell. The case stemmed from Blackwell’s days as secretary of state. He was accused of failing to follow federal law requiring welfare offices to offer voter registration forms to applicants for public assistance. A report last week showed how much compliance has helped low-income voters. More than 600,000 have registered to vote or updated their voter information since 2010, the first full year of implementation.
Yet the report, by Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates, also makes a persuasive argument that the process could be improved. The report tracks a 45 percent drop-off in registration activity after the 2012 election compared to the same months in preceding years. Meanwhile, activity through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles has remained steady.
Ohio now is following federal law and doing well with welfare office registrations and updates. In terms of the percentage of applications from welfare offices, the state ranks No. 2 in the nation, at 16 percent, according to federal data. What the report from Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates notes is the ease with which applications are handled at the BMV outlets, where driver’s license applicants receive a filled out voter registration form that requires just checking two boxes and adding a signature. More, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles automatically transfers change-of-address information to local elections boards.
The Voter Advocates study makes a strong argument for a level playing field, especially when it comes to handling change-of-address information. Automatic transfers prevent clerical errors that can cause big problems on Election Day, greatly reducing the use of provisional ballots. These ballots are counted later after information is verified. Ohio’s heavy use of provisional ballots, the report correctly points out, is costly, contributes to delays in counting and risks legal controversies.
Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates suggests going further, by including postage-paid envelopes for those applying at welfare offices. That isn’t necessary, as Republicans argue. What is sensible is requiring welfare offices to follow the smoother road traveled by the BMV.