Ohio Needs to Strengthen, Not Restrict Voting Rights Protections

May 11, 2021 | 1:42 pm
Voting carrels set on a table in the 2019 Ohio general election.Tim Evanson/Flickr
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

The strength of voting and elections law varies greatly between states. There are three key areas where these laws differ, 1) voter eligibility and ease of registration, 2) ballot access and time to vote, and 3) ballot processing, rejection rates, and quality control. Ensuring that everyone’s vote counts the same is also a crucial aspect of electoral integrity, as measured through bias in results, including malapportionment, and racial and partisan gerrymandering. Ohio is one of many states where legislatures are now moving to enact new restrictions, facing pressure from extremists motivated by false allegations that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

How does Ohio compare to other states?

We can compare these features of electoral integrity using data sets that measure the difficulty of voting across states and expert surveys. Last December, Scot Schraufnagel, Michael J. Pomante II, and Quan Li published “Cost of Voting in the American States: 2020” in the Election Law Journal. Building on previous work, they updated a composite index based on registration deadlines, voter registration and eligibility restrictions, the ability of groups to register voters, pre-registration, voting convenience and early voting access, ID restrictions, and length of polling hours.

According to this index, in 2020 Ohio ranked 36th, in the lower half of states, in ease of voting. Ohio lacks many of the accommodations provided to voters in states like Oregon, Washington, and Utah, which top the list: easy voter registration and renewal, universal vote-by-mail, and expansive early voting. In Ohio, eligibility is limited, voters must register a month in advance, request and fill out an application to vote by mail, and there are few early in-person voting locations, putting urban voters at a comparative disadvantage.

The Electoral Integrity Project also places Ohio below average in their 50-state assessment published by Pippa Norris, “Electoral Integrity in the 2020 US Elections”. The state’s overall score is 74 out of 100, compared to a national average of 79. While Ohio scores well on ballot processing and accuracy of vote counting, state elections there have especially poor performance on quality of election law and drawing of district boundaries. The state has been sued for its regressive policy of purging inactive voters from the state voter registration list, and both its Congressional and state legislative districts are gerrymandered heavily in favor of the governing Republican Party.

What changes are being considered now?

The state legislature is currently considering a number of changes, some of which actually address electoral integrity. Provisions for establishing automated voter registration through the Bureau of Voter Vehicles and online applications for absentee voting could improve security and improve access to the vote. Unfortunately, the legislature is also considering lengthening the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot and requiring two forms of identification, both of which make it harder to vote and do nothing to improve electoral integrity. Further, legislators are seeking to limit the number of ballot drop boxes to three per county, instead of using population (for example, California deployed one box per 10,000 voters in 2020), and they may take away the last day of early voting before Election Day. Proponents say this is a question of logistics, but given how many other states allow full early in-person and absentee voting, it is pretty clearly a question of priorities and resources.

While legislation being considered would expand recorded activity that would keep voters from being purged from registration lists, and allow all 17-year olds to work as precinct workers, the legislature is also considering explicitly rejecting absentee ballots that are not enclosed in two separate envelopes. These sorts of administrative requirements lead to higher rejection rates, disproportionately impact voters living in disadvantaged communities, and have no measurable impact on improving electoral integrity.

What should Ohio do to protect voting rights?

If the legislature is serious about improving electoral integrity, they should follow procedures developed in other states that have proven effective. Colorado has become a model of election administration, with universal vote-by-mail, one-stop-shopping early voting centers and pro-voter practices of ballot curing and verification. The state legislature also has a great deal to learn from the lessons of 2020.

First and foremost, they should recognize the need to adequately fund election administration activities as the crucial infrastructure they are. They should bypass the administrative burden of requiring people to apply for absentee ballots, which introduces more error into the system. As transparency and security go hand-in-hand, the Ohio legislature should enact legislation that allows voters to comprehensively track ballots (complete chain of custody at every “touch” of the ballot), and allow local officials to manage and communicate the number of ballots sent, received, processed, and rejected on a daily basis. They should require all jurisdictions to conduct risk-limiting audits (RLAs) so that voters have confidence in the outcomes. In Ohio, a 2017 secretary of state directive recommended RLAs, but did not mandate them for local jurisdictions.

There are numerous other reforms the Ohio legislature could consider if they are genuinely trying to improve electoral integrity. Instead, many legislators are falling into a pattern of weaponizing the electoral process to advance partisan interests in what we now recognize is a deadly game that resulted in an insurrection in the nation’s capital only months ago. We need to stop this game now.