Spotlight on Ohio: Steps to Cure Disenfranchisement by Typo

The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office took an important step this election to ensure the ballots of legitimate voters were counted. It’s worth highlighting because it didn’t receive any coverage, yet it’s an important example for other states to follow.

December 20, 2012
Ohio voter disenfranchisement

In the run up to the 2012 election (as in every presidential election since at least 2004), Ohio was again at the center of controversy. On early voting, provisional ballots, and more, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office took positions that we strenuously opposed because they would make it more difficult for Ohioans to cast ballots that would be counted.

But this post isn’t about those controversies.  It’s about an important step taken by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to ensure the ballots of legitimate voters were counted.  It’s worth highlighting because it didn’t receive any coverage, yet it’s an important example for other states to follow.

The Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates found that many eligible, registered voters were not sent the absentee ballots they had requested because Ohio’s statewide voter-lookup system requires an exact match to verify the identities of voters.  As we have previously reported, exact-match systems can lead to disenfranchisement because of spelling differences in a voter’s record in different government databases (e.g. William vs. Bill or Street vs. St.), or because of minor typographical errors, often made by election officials who have to manually enter data from thousands of paper-based registration forms. For instance, here in New York, I arrived at my polling place on Election Day to find my own last name misspelled in the poll books as “Agraharkal,” most likely because an election worker misread my handwritten voter-registration form.

The exact-match system led Ohio counties to reject applications for absentee ballots by voters wrongly identified as unregistered because of a failed match.  Unfortunately, counties would be using the same lookup system after the election to verify the identities of provisional voters before their ballots could be counted.  As a result, eligible provisional voters with minor errors in their registration record would have had their provisional ballots rejected.

Soon after Election Day, we brought this problem to the attention of the Secretary of State’s office.  It responded by promptly emailing Ohio counties with recommendations for more inclusive searches, thus providing counties with the tools they needed to prevent inadequate matching procedures from disenfranchising provisional voters.  This was no small change, and Ohio deserves much credit for acting to mitigate the problem. We are optimistic that Ohio counties will be directed to use the better search procedures in future elections and we hope other states will follow suit and manually review their own systems for verifying voters’ identities.

Ohio, and the nation, should address the root causes of such errors by modernizing its voter-registration system, so that election officials no longer have to manually enter data from thousands of (often-illegible) paper-based registration forms. Last year, Secretary of State Husted took steps towards modernization by implementing an online change-of-address tool and going on record in support of online voter registration.  The Ohio legislature would do well to work with the Secretary to implement online registration as well as other modernizing reforms to get more Ohioans to become registered when they interact with government agencies and stay registered when they move.  These reforms will boost turnout and ensure that disenfranchisement due to minor, technical errors will be a thing of the past.