There was a time not too long ago when Republicans and Democrats worked together at the Statehouse to improve the state’s voting system. Recall the messy 2004 presidential election, many voters waiting hours in line to cast their ballots, a significant share giving up. Lawmakers went to work in a bipartisan fashion to make helpful changes, including the creation of a week when Ohioans could register and vote at the same time.
Then, escalating partisanship took a firm hold, Republicans, in particular, looking to roll back advances, and Democrats often responding with lawsuits. What remains is a better system compared to many states, with roughly a month of early voting, easy-to-obtain, no-need-for-an-excuse absentee voting and early voting centers open on weekends to add further convenience.
Yet Ohio still can do more to make repairs and upgrades. That is what Frank LaRose, now four months into the job of secretary of state, has pledged to pursue. The Hudson Republican and former state senator wants to work with Democrats, or recover that bipartisan approach, though he did stumble at first in tapping the notably partisan Ken Blackwell to co-chair his transition team, thus appearing protective of his right flank.
In recent weeks, the secretary has begun to prove true in unveiling plans to move the state toward automatic voter registration. This is a smart move, and something his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Clyde, emphasized during her campaign last year. LaRose has put together a bipartisan work group of lawmakers, including state Sen. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat, to assist in charting the path forward through legislation.
The secretary has in mind a system in which Ohioans coming into contact with state government, say, by paying taxes or renewing a driver’s license, would be registered to vote or see their voter registration updated. An Ohioan would have the choice to opt-out of the process. This not only would be convenient. It would deploy technology to encourage greater participation.
Fifteen states already have a version of automatic voter registration. So there is information about best practices and lessons learned. As state Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, a Cleveland Democrat and member of the LaRose working group, noted at a recent press conference, 60,000 ballots have been tossed out in general elections since 2011, with 20,000 due to voters failing to update their registration.
LaRose argues that this approach would help in addressing the subject of one of the most recent election-related lawsuits — the state’s practice of purging from the rolls those who fail to vote in three consecutive federal elections, or intervening local elections, and do not respond to state notices seeking confirmation of their registration. A 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice last year.
The secretary gets it right in stating: “Just because it’s been upheld by the Supreme Court doesn’t mean it’s ideal.” It would be better if the state extended the window, so fewer fully registered yet infrequent voters would be hung up. LaRose went the extra step in sending notices to the addresses of 260,000 canceled registrations as a prompt for today’s primary, though the result was relatively few updates.
The point, as LaRose highlights, is that automatic voter registration would make for a system that poses less inconvenience for infrequent voters yet fulfills the state’s responsibility to maintain an accurate list of registered voters. Eventually, the secretary and his working group will need the support of majorities in the legislature, the large, bipartisan kind preferred. Next year, Ohio once more will feature prominently in the presidential race. Let’s hope by then automatic voter registration is a feature of the state’s voting system.