A Bad Bill

by Susan Lakes with research from Jesse Call

Proponents and opponents testified on the merits and drawbacks of a house bill that’s designed to upgrade Ohio’s election system in time for the 2012 presidential election.

The bill, House Bill 194, includes technological advances, such as allowing online address changes. The advances aren’t what’s bothering some opponents. It’s the potential obstacles to registering that could impact thousands of Ohioans, rendering their votes uncountable.

“Our research has shown that Ohio can dramatically improve the accuracy of the information on its voter lists,” said David Becker, project director of the election initiatives team of the Pew Center on the states, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts. His research indicates that 1 and 8 active voter records nationally is no longer valid or contains a significant error.

The proposed changes to Ohio’s election process presented in the 300 page long HB 194 may disrupt the system more than help, according to some of the bill’s opponents.

Professor Daniel P. Tokaji is one of them. He is the professor of law at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, and has written extensively about the state’s voting laws and has served as counsel for plain¬tiffs in voting rights cases

Tokaji testified that the massive election bill could potentially disrupt the stability of Ohio’s election system and make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote and have their votes counted.

The changes made when Ohio last changed election laws were partly constructive, but, on the whole, bad. “…it too had a destabilizing effect on our election system, resulting in multiple lawsuits and court orders—-not to mention confusion for election officials, poll workers and voters, “ Tokaji said

It took years to sort out the confusion from the changes form six years ago, and Tokaji cautioned that the recent changes might have the same effect.

“What’s the big lesson to be learned from recent history? Changes in election law, however well-intentioned, invariably have unanticipated consequences,” the professor said.

It’s the combination of all the proposed changes that concerns Tokaji.”Unfortunately, their net effect would be to make our election system worse rather than better.”

Taken together, the provisions of the bill would likely be good for election lawyers since they would provide fertile ground for legal challenges.

“But they are not good news for our election ecosystem,” he said. “They are especially bad news form the perspective of voters who want to (be) sure they can vote and have their vote counted.”

Ohio Secretary of State, Jon Husted, provided written testimony that essentially places problem free voting on the backs of voters. To Husted, the house bill makes it easier for voters to fulfill their individual responsibilities to do the following:

o Register to vote
o Keep address updated,
o Bring the proper ID to the polls
o Vote at the proper precinct.

The bill’s provision provides ways for voters to make address changes online, resulting in cost savings, according to Husted’s testimony. In the last general election, voters who had changed addresses or names without notifying the election board accounted for more than half of the provisional ballots cast. The online change system, according to Husted, would reduce the number of provisional ballots and increase the number of regular ballots.

At least two locals who had planned to testify before the committee left before getting a chance to testify. Riccardo Taylor from the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and Pat Clifford representing Common Cause did not speak, but did leave written testimony.

Bill Paton reminded the committee that voting is a right and not a privilege.