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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.

  • Vishal Agraharkar
December 20, 2012

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.