COLUMBUS, Ohio — Officials with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office say they’re working to make sure no voters’ registrations were improperly canceled after state legislative staffers say they found another flaw with the state’s system of keeping its voting rolls up to date.
After comparing and analyzing state and county voting data, staffers with the Ohio House Democratic Caucus found at least 1,000 Cuyahoga County voters whom local elections workers may have improperly marked for removal, due to what may amount to a miscommunication between the county and the state.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office has contacted other counties to make them aware of the issue in Cuyahoga County, according to LaRose spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan. Local elections officials were required to finalize their purge lists last Friday, under guidance issued by LaRose.
“Any cancellation that is found to violate the Secretary’s directive will be reinstated by the county, and that voter will have a chance to have their voice heard in November,” she said.
Democratic State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, of Cleveland, announced the issue involving the 1,000 voters in a press release last Thursday. That led to a Tuesday conversation between her LaRose, during which LaRose acknowledged the 1,000 voters’ registration may have been incorrectly marked for cancellation.
So then, Sweeney, applying the same criteria that identified the 1,000 voters in Cuyahoga County, announced Wednesday that more may have been similarly marked for removal in Franklin, Lucas, Hamilton and Summit counties.
Generally, in Ohio, voters are removed from the rolls if they don’t vote in six consecutive elections or respond to mailed notices from elections officials.
Ohio’s method of maintaining its voter rolls, which elections officials say is necessary to keep the list current, has been the subject of partisan controversy and legal challenges over the years, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a 5-4 ruling in 2018 upholding it.
Since taking office in January, LaRose has publicized the list of 230,000-plus voters set to be purged for inactivity, and worked with voting-rights activists to contact them as part of a larger effort to reduce the number of voters whose registrations are canceled.
That approach has resulted in more than 10,000 voters updating their registrations, saving them from being purged.
But it’s also highlighted holes in the process — including previous problems that led to 2,500 Franklin County voters being erroneously flagged for removal and the new problem affecting the 1,000 voters in Cuyahoga County — and opened up LaRose to public criticism.
LaRose has called Ohio’s elections administration system out of date, and has backed incremental measures to improve it.
“It’s a more transparent process than we’ve had in the past, which I’ve always commended the Secretary of State for putting it out there,” Sweeney, who’s taken an interest in elections issues since taking office in January, said in an interview. “But that doesn’t mean anything unless you have accountability.”
So, what happened?
The issue involves a group of voters who would be purged under a very specific scenario.
It applies to people who moved in 2015 within the same county, filed a change-of-address form with the U.S. Postal Service, but then didn’t vote in any subsequent elections or respond to attempts from county elections workers to contact them. Why 2015? Because starting in 2016, the state began automatically updating the registrations of voters who filed change-of-address forms after moving within the county.
LaRose in a Sept. 6 memo directed county boards of elections, which maintain each set of local voter data, to exempt these voters who moved in-county in 2015 from the purge.
The state then provided local elections boards with a list of people it said should be exempted under the previously mentioned scenario, according to Tony Perlatti, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. In Cuyahoga County, that was 450 names, he said.
So, Cuyahoga County exempted the 450 names and purged the rest.
“We weren’t instructed to try to do our own analysis of the data to see if there would be additional individuals,” Perlatti said in an interview. “So, we didn’t do that. We just went off the list of what we were provided.”
After the Sept. 6 deadline passed, House Democratic staff requested lists produced by Cuyahoga and a handful of other counties showing voters who were marked to be purged under the 2015 scenario. They compared those lists with state lists showing voters who were marked to be purged earlier this summer, and whose registrations were then canceled.
That led to the 1,000 names in Cuyahoga County, and then those potentially in the other counties. However, officials in LaRose’s office said other counties found the state’s directive to be clear and didn’t encounter any issues.
Sweeney, the Cleveland Democratic state representative, said she doesn’t fault local elections workers for the problem. She said they did the best they could do under a last-minute change in guidance in a system that’s already needlessly complicated.
“When the Secretary of State gives you a list where there was error, and we still don’t know why they had the wrong number, they don’t have a clear directive,” she said.
The Ohio Democratic Party sued LaRose last month, citing some of the errors uncovered in the months leading up to the purge, which LaRose terms the “Registration Reset process.”
But a federal judge declined to block the purge, saying Democrats didn’t provide proof of their allegations, and praising LaRose for implementing “numerous safeguards to enable eligible voters to vote.”
The ODP then dropped their case.