Frank LaRose calls Ohio’s voter registration system “an analog process in a digital era.” The secretary of state points specifically to the way the state seeks to maintain the accuracy of its voter rolls, mailing notices to voters who miss two years of elections, then striking them from the rolls if they do not respond or fail to vote during the next four years. The problems with this “supplemental process” have been at the front of late as the secretary prepares for Sept. 6, the day names will be removed.
Fortunately, there is a digital response in the making. On Friday, state Sens. Nathan Manning, a Ridgeville Republican, and Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat, unveiled Senate Bill 186. The legislation calls for modernizing the voter registration process through the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Engage the bureau, say, by renewing a driver’s license, and the updated information would be sent electronically to the secretary of state.
This step would reduce dramatically, perhaps even eliminate, the cumbersome mailing system. The process would be more efficient and precise, the state less vulnerable to errors and less likely to have one of the highest rates of provisional ballots.
The legislation deserves high priority when lawmakers return to the Statehouse in the fall.
The secretary of state has helped the cause in his handling of the current removal process, or “purge.” He has added an important element of transparency, making public the list of nearly 236,000 names ready to be removed. That has opened the door to the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and others to examine the list, expose problems and alert voters to take steps to preserve their voting status.
The effort has highlighted shortcomings. The All Voting Is Local organization found 4,000 registrations that actually are active, or do not belong on the list. The Columbus Dispatch reported over the weekend that a software vendor incorrectly added more than 1,600 names. The secretary stresses this was the idea in adding more eyes — aiding his office in finding mistakes and improving the process.
Advocacy groups want the secretary to postpone the removal date. He has resisted, noting his obligation under the law and lack of room for discretion. He further insists that at this point, it is “highly, highly unlikely” that any voter will be wrongly removed. The secretary does have a legal duty. At the same time, he describes the current process as “messy” in view of 88 counties with considerable autonomy in managing the work.
All of that makes the case for what Nathan Manning and Vernon Sykes propose. The process becomes much less messy with a mechanism for automatically updating registrations. Federal law orders states to maintain accurate voter rolls. It also forbids removing a voter for failing to cast a ballot. Senate Bill 186 serves both mandates.
The legislation also could be improved. Advocates rightly see an opportunity to “pre-register” 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds when they first engage the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The thinking is: Get them early, and they are more likely to become regular voters. The bill includes language allowing voters to change their party affiliation at any time. That is worth exploring. Yet the provision already appears likely to burden the overall legislation with partisanship. Better to avoid matters that slow things down.
The leading purpose of Senate Bill 186 is to tap readily available technology to deliver up-to-date and correct voter registration lists, not to mention public confidence in the system. That is something for lawmakers to accomplish quickly, and in doing so, make these controversial purges a thing of the past.