For a brief and glorious moment, Ohio was going to have online voter registration. A mere 12 days after online voter registration was born, the Ohio legislature passed HB 224, a bill that amended parts of an election reform bill (HB 194) that gave online voter registration its short life. We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s just say that the original election reform bill – HB 194 – was not entirely beneficial to voters. It shortens the early voting period from 35 days to 17 days, ends all Sunday voting hours, and stops counties from automatically sending out absentee ballot applications (a common practice in larger, urban counties). It also eliminates a requirement for poll workers to direct voters to their correct precinct if they arrive at the wrong location. That’s right: if you show up at the wrong polling place, poll workers now don’t have to tell you where your proper polling place is.
Before this “reform,” poll workers were required to inform and direct voters to their correct polling place. In a place like the Ohio Union on the campus of Ohio State University where voters from many precincts cast their ballots in different parts of the building, poll workers could tell a wayward voter, “actually, your polling place is across the hall.” This is known as the “right church, wrong pew” issue.
Why does your “pew” matter? Because voters who aren’t on the rolls at a polling place are given provisional ballots, and provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct are not counted. Instead of fixing the problem – say, allowing votes cast by properly registered voters who were in the wrong spot to count for races that aren’t precinct-specific, like for President or Governor – the new law will make it worse by allowing poll workers to ignore lost voters.
Ohio Representative Alicia Reece noted: “Some of my constituents cast their ballot at the right polling location but in the wrong precinct due to the error of a poll worker. They showed up to the right building, but they were misdirected. Others showed up to the wrong place and were not told to go to the correct building which might have been just a mile down the road.”
Also lurking surreptitiously in the “Miscellaneous” section of the reform bill explicitly prohibits any public school from transporting students to a polling place during regular school hours to vote. Why, you ask? Our friends at the Fair Elections Legal Network pick up the story:
A social studies teacher from Hughes High School in Cincinnati allowed students to be transported to the polls without authorized supervision, a violation of district field trip policy. The incident was met with outrage by some Republicans after it was learned that the students were shown only Democratic sample ballots, which prompted allegations that the Cincinnati school district was in conspiracy with Democrats to “indoctrinate young people for their electoral purposes.”
School officials stated that students were given only Democratic literature because a Republican campaign worker declined to provide literature. The district maintained that they were not interested in partisan politics. While school officials at Hughes High School did in fact violate field trip policy, to charge that it exposed efforts by the Cincinnati school district to pressure young voters is a willful distortion of the matters of the case. The district swiftly took several corrective measures following the incident; disciplinary action was taken against the school officials in question and a court order signed by a county judge barred the district from using any personnel or property of the public school system to advocate for a particular candidate or party.
Despite the court order, former House of Representatives member Thomas Brinkman pressed forward on a lawsuit to issue a permanent injunction against students being subjected to partisan activities during school hours. Less than a year later, Brinkman’s position against students being transported to the polls would be echoed by Ohio legislators in HB 194.
On the plus side, HB 194 did allow online voter registration for voters with driver’s licenses or state ID cards. This forward-looking reform, pushed for by the Secretary of State, would have allowed new voters to register completely online and currently registered voters to update their information when they moved or changed their name. Not anymore. The bill that was passed this week, HB 224, stripped out the online voter registration provisions.
So, instead of fixing provisions in the original bill that would be barriers to access and participation, the legislature removed the measures that would actually help facilitate and modernize the voting process. Secretary of State Jon Husted was disappointed: “The goal of online registration was to take advantage of technology and allow voters to register and update their addresses so they don’t have to vote provisionally. We were trying to make Ohio a more forward-thinking state. This action is a setback for Ohio, but it will not stop my efforts to modernize our election system.”
Ever the optimist, Secretary of State Husted said: “Today should be viewed as a victory for what didn’t happen. The Senate did not enact a draconian photo identification law and I thank them for hearing my concerns.”
Ah, victory never tasted so bad.