Ohio legislature to consider changes to voter registration, verification

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW)-- Senate Bill 186, a bill of significant size and impact that addresses voter verification and registration is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday, but its bipartisan sponsors are calling for a short delay.

The bill was introduced in August by State Sens. Vernon Sykes (Akron-D) and Nathan Manning (North Ridgeville-R). About three weeks later, it was assigned to the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee. It was supposed to get its first hearing in front of the committee on Tuesday, but according to Sykes, a delay has been requested in order to hear from more interested parties.

Despite not having a single hearing yet, the bill has gone through several changes, according to Sykes.

The general basics of the bill have stayed the same, however. It seeks to change how voter registration is conducted and updated through the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, primarily.

"We interact with the bureau of motor vehicles a lot more than we than we do the Board of Elections; so this information would be automatically transferred over to the board of elections to update your records," said Sykes.

Right now, when you get or update your driver's license, you are asked if you want to register to vote or change your voter registration address. If you do, you are given a paper form to fill out and it is submitted on your behalf.

The bill turns that process around 180 degrees, making the registration or update automatic unless you opt out of doing so. Also, the paper form would be skipped and the digital information in the BMV system would be used.

Using the digital information is supposed to cut down on errors of penmanship or simply transposing digits. This could save money on printing costs as well, as all of the instructions would be on a digital display.

The bill would also allow the Ohio Secretary of State to expand this automatic process of registering or updating to other state government entities such as the department of taxation, or the department of jobs and family services, for instance. These state agencies have consistent contact with Ohioans, and may make for appropriate sources to maintain accurate residential records.

Having accurate registration will cut back on errors when it comes to maintaining the voter roles, something required by state and federal law. With accurate addresses, people who reach the point where it is necessary to receive notifications. When tied to the renewal of Ohio's four-year driver's license, it will also keep many people from ending up purged due to the active updating of their registration and up to date home address.

The bill also potentially cuts back on the need to print excessive amounts of provisional ballots.

"We have very high provisional ballot counts here in Ohio. A lot of times it's because people are moving and not updating their address," said Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Provisional ballots are printed in case someone comes in and wants to vote, but there is a question about their eligibility to do so.

According to Sykes, an Ohio State University study found none of the states that surround Ohio print as many provisional ballots, and it is thought that inaccurate voter registration roles are partially to blame for this use of taxpayer dollars.

He also said Secretary of State Frank LaRose strongly supports the efforts of changing how voter purges are conducted. LaRose has frequently called for updates to the voter registration system, even prior to becoming secretary of state. His support of this effort is joined by the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Ohio.

"Our registration system as is largely based on a 20th century model; and now we are in a digital world, so let us harness the capabilities of the digital world to save money, to make our roles more accurate and secure, and to just make sure that folks are registered at the right location," said Miller. "This is happening all over the country, it's common sense; it seems like it's foreign but really it's something that I think a lot of voters already expect."

The bill will have to make it through the legislative process before the end of the general assembly just over a year from now. Sykes says he is optimistic about the bill's chances, but they are not rushing this. He said they want to get it done right for the people of Ohio.

Some of its provisions would go into effect two years after the first January in which it is in effect, which, if Sykes is right and it passes before next December, would be 2022.

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