Originally published in the Columbus Dispatch, 10/29/09
Elections in Ohio can produce controversy that is sometimes corrosive to the public's perception of the integrity of our electoral system. As long as Ohio remains a politically important and closely divided state, there will continue to be hotly contested election-related disputes. But changes to election law in Ohio can minimize the frequency and impact of some of these controversies by creating clearer and fairer laws that improve election administration, decrease burdens and costs on county election offices and put the voters first. The Ohio House Committee on Elections and Ethics is considering legislation that should make progress on all of these fronts.
In December and March, I chaired two summits on Ohio Election reform. Each involved a convening of ideologically diverse election officials, academics and voting-rights groups to reflect on ways to make Ohio elections run better. Those assembled agreed that, because of the hard work of election administrators, voting-rights groups and Ohio voters, the 2008 elections were largely a success. There was, however, consensus that more could be done.
The elections-enhancement bill sponsored by Reps. Dan Stewart and Tracy Heard, both Democrats from Columbus, takes many suggestions from the summits. It would improve laws related to early voting, provisional ballots, voter ID and ballot design -- all sources of problems in Ohio in the past.
But the current bill doesn't fully address flaws in the state's voter-registration system, which participants at both summits decried as inefficient and prone to error. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and the bipartisan workgroup she pulled together after the summit have proposed a way to fill that gap: an automatic and online voter-registration system.
This system would make it possible to automatically forward registration information from all Ohio residents who interact with a designated government agency to election officials, who could then include such information on the state's voter rolls of eligible residents. This would vastly increase administrative efficiency and reduce the stress on election officials from the typical last-minute deluge of voter-registration forms, smoothing out the flow of registration activity across the year and freeing up resources for other critical election-administration tasks. And, it would improve both the quality and security of voter-registration information and preserve registrars' traditional function of determining eligibility.
Research by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law shows that automatic voter registration could easily be developed from statewide voter-registration databases already in place. Delaware recently implemented automatic registration from its motor-vehicles agency; the state's elections and motor-vehicles officials have expressed great satisfaction with the results. Ohio's Bureau Of Motor Vehicles already participates in automatic registration for the Selective Service, and the same technology can easily be adapted for voter registration. Many other major democracies, including Canada, automatically register eligible citizens to vote, achieving far more complete and accurate voter rolls at lower cost.
The elements needed for an online registration system are firmly in place in Ohio. The state has a secure online interface that residents can use to check their existing registration status; currently, however, the state doesn't provide a way residents can correct or amend information. And, Ohio's Motor Vehicles Bureau already has digitized the information needed to register drivers to vote; they simply need legal authority to transfer this information to election officials.
Successful models are cropping up across the country. Arizona, for example, has an online system that's generated substantial savings. Officials there say that each online registration costs just three cents to process; paper forms costs 83 cents each to process. The system has also saved Arizona election officials tens of thousands of hours in time that would have been spent manually entering data.
And citizens report substantial satisfaction with the added convenience that online registration offers. It is no surprise that eight other states -- California, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- recently authorized online registration, or that similar bills are pending in at least four other states.
In Ohio, the resources and political will are in place. Passing a version of the election-enhancement bill that incorporates voter-registration modernization reforms could make the Buckeye State a model of electoral reform.