Editorial: Voting bill makes registration easier and clears out deadwood


Columbus Dispatch



A bill to modernize voter registration in Ohio has the potential to ease concerns of voting-rights advocates and bolster public confidence in elections. Sponsors of Senate Bill 186 should clarify some bill language that is causing confusion, but the bill deserves a warm welcome from those who want to see as many Ohioans as possible participating in elections.

Under the bill, sponsored by Democrat Vernon Sykes of Akron and Republican Nathan Manning of North Ridgeville, registering to vote or updating one’s address would require no more than a “yes” answer when Ohioans come in contact with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies.

When a person’s primary business with the agency is done, a voter-registration screen would be generated, already filled out with the information the person has just given. The person would be asked whether he or she wants to register or update. If the answer is yes, the form can be filed instantly.

It’s a big improvement over current law, which requires BMV and other state-agency employees to ask customers if they want to fill out a registration form. Employees don’t always offer the form, and some people can’t take the time to fill it out.

A pre-populated form, built into the underlying transaction, would make registrations more accurate and closer to automatic — the goal of many voting-advocacy groups.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose shies away from the word “automatic,” referring to the proposed system as “verified” registration.

Either way, it could do a lot to end the tension between voter-rights groups and the secretary of state’s office over its efforts to clear the rolls of no-longer-valid registrations.

Voters’ groups long have objected to Ohio’s “supplemental process.” Under it, registered voters who skip two federal (even-numbered-year) elections are sent a notice at their listed address asking them to confirm that they still live there and want to remain registered. If they don’t respond to the notice and don’t vote in the next federal election, they’re removed from the rolls.

Nearly everyone visits the BMV over a four-year period; near-automatic updating of registrations should eliminate many of the “phantom” registrations — from when people move and register at their new addresses without canceling their old registrations — that are a big part of what critics call the “purge.” It also would restart the clock for people who are registered but haven’t voted.

LaRose and the bill’s sponsors should address questions and suggestions from a coalition of voters’ groups, which wants the bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to “pre-register” when they get their first driver’s licenses, so that they’ll be ready to vote when they turn 18. The idea is worth considering; pre-registration could boost typically low turnout rates among young voters.

Common Cause and other groups also are right to question a prepaid postcard that would be handed to people who register under the new system. It’s meant as a way for people to later change or cancel their registrations, but it includes a blank in which people can designate a political party affiliation. Party preference isn’t part of voter registration in Ohio; in primary elections, voters can choose whatever party’s ballot they prefer.

Rather than confusing voters with the party question, SB 168 should remain focused on modernizing voter registration. It does a good job of that and is overdue.

Columbus Dispatch

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