March 25, 2009
Ohio election officials purged more than a million voters between the 2004 and 2008 elections. The number is three times that of voters purged between the 2000 and 2004 elections in that key swing state.
The Free Press Election Protection Project requested data from Boards of Elections in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. A detailed analysis of the records reveals shocking and unprecedented purges. The total number of people whose names were removed from the voting rolls is a stunning 1.25 million.
The Ohio data shows enormous disparities in the number of people purged in different categories from county to county. These results suggest obvious violations of equal protection and due process. The documents demonstrate that the voting rights of a million Ohioans were destroyed based on the arbitrary whims of local election officials. Purging appears to be subject to widely diverse interpretations of state and federal laws by different Ohio Board of Elections officials.
Despite being the only organization in Ohio to conduct a statewide study of voter purges, Free Press staffers were not invited to present the results at the second statewide Ohio Election Conference convened by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in March 2009.
One of the study’s most troubling findings was that Hamilton County knocked 37,465 reported felons off the voting list. The next largest number came from Franklin County, which is larger than Hamilton County, with 2,174. Hamilton County became infamous in the 2004 election for wrongly telling former felons that they weren’t eligible to vote unless a judge signed off. Ohio uses the “in/out” rule in regards to felons: those in prison cannot vote; those out of prison can vote, even if on probation or in a halfway house.
Hamilton County’s felon purge constituted 80% of all Ohio’s total. In the past, some counties mistakenly purged people only indicted, but not convicted of felonies. After a Free Press investigation, Franklin County admitted to this practice prior to the 2004 election.
Those suffering a “mental incident” can be purged as well, especially in Fayette County. Out of 307 voters stripped of their voting rights because of psychological problems, 283 were from Fayette County – more than 92% of the state’s reported total.
Altogether, 220,000 voters were purged due to death or moving. There were 137,550 voters who moved from one county to another and were justifiably eliminated as they were merged into their new county’s voting roll. Another 93,178 voters deleted due to death, leaving more than a million eliminated for other or unknown reasons.
The largest single purge category, with 228,799 voters, was “failure to vote.” In Franklin County, home of Columbus, led the way with 116,000 purged voters – 51% of the total eliminated for not voting.
“Failure to vote” may have a different definition depending on which Ohio county you ask. Some counties purge if a voter fails to vote in federal elections for eight years straight. Other counties purge after failure to vote in federal elections every four years.
Only 47 Ohio counties offered specifics on the reasons for purging. Other counties simply reported a non-categorized total number of purges in response to the Free Press records request. The Republican stronghold of Warren County purged more than 52,000 people without explanation and Democratic Lucas County, home of Toledo, purged more than 24,000 for unknown causes. Many of Ohio’s counties refused to comply with the Free Press’ records request until after the election, and some complied only after legal pressure from the Secretary of State’s office.
Ohio does not have a uniform system for keeping track of purged voters. Shelby County and the historically corrupt Mahoning County refused to comply with Ohio’s public records law and provided no records. Sandusky County, despite assurances from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office that there is a statewide computer database linked to all counties, informed the Free Press that they only had paper records available for inspection on site and were incapable of transmitting electronic data.
One of the difficulties discussed at the March Election Conference is that there’s no statewide system for coding purges, making it unclear which counties remove people for death, felony conviction, failing to vote, or failing to respond to a notice from the Board of Elections.
Statewide Free Press Election Protection Project coordinator Connie Gadell-Newton noted in her preliminary assessment, “…even though a whopping 1.25 million records were removed, this doesn’t mean that 1.25 million people were disenfranchised or that 1.25 million individual people were removed from the voting rolls, since some voters may have been removed more than once if they moved from county to county multiple times.”
Initial studies indicate that 80% of purged voters who moved had moved within the county. Historically, Ohio voters who moved within the same county could cast their ballot at the county Board of Elections. In the run up to the 2008 election, 66,115 voters who moved within county were purged. Franklin County boasts 38% of the total. Fulton and Henry counties had only one each.
In 2008, the Republican Party and the Obama campaign waged a battle wherein voters were purged at the request of the Republican Party and later re-registered by the Obama campaign.
The records indicate that many voters were removed for failure to respond to a mailed notice, even though they continued to reside in the same county and some at the same voter registration address.
Verification of voter address has emerged as the key issue, not only in purge issues, but in uncounted provisional ballots. Ohio had 181,000 provisional voters, a staggeringly high number compared to only 7,000 provisional voters in Missouri and 5,000 in Virginia. These statistics come from Brunner’s first Election Summit in December 2008. In Ohio, 10% of all people voting on Election Day were forced to vote provisionally.
At the March Election Conference, Franklin County Board of Elections Deputy Director Matt Damschroder, a Republican, advocated using state and federal records to establish new addresses for Ohio voters.
Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice Lawrence Norden noted another problem with voters’ addresses. He pointed out that 36% of Ohio’s uncounted provisional ballots were the result of voters being in the wrong precinct, but often at the right polling place.
Tom McCabe, Director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections, reported that 81% of provisional votes were counted in Mahoning County. He pointed out that the number would have been 90% had the pre-Ken Blackwell rules been in effect in Ohio. Prior to Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s supervision of Ohio’s 2004 presidential election, Ohio voters in the wrong precinct still had their votes counted from the county level to the presidential level.
McCabe also decried the fact that there is no consistent statewide standard for counting provisional ballots in Ohio. In his county, a voter who was able to produce a library card with a current address was allowed to vote, although that type of ID is not officially accepted in Ohio guidelines.
In a promising development, a handful of Ohio counties noted that they did not purge voter records from their computer systems, but merely moved questionable voter names into an “inactive” status. Some “flagged” certain voters if there were concerns about their eligibility. On another positive note, Coshocton County notified the Free Press that it is a “no purge” county.
Prior to the 2004 election, most purges were concentrated in the Democratic havens of Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo. Public records show that in Cleveland, 24.93% of all voters were dumped from the voting rolls.
The pattern continued prior to the 2008 election, with an additional 211,000 Franklin County voters removed. Most were concentrated in the Democratically-controlled capital city of Columbus.
Just prior to the 2008 presidential election, the Free Press called attention to the Ohio Republican Party’s attempt to purge 600,000 long-time registered voters, and 200,000 newly-registered voters. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s intervention prevented the 800,000 purges by directing that Ohio voters had both the right to notification and hearing before being stripped of their voting rights. If the GOP had succeeded in eliminating the 800,000 overwhelmingly Democratic voters, John McCain may have carried Ohio by 50,000 votes, instead of losing by more than 200,000 votes.
A Jim Crow system of county-by-county partisan purges remains in effect in Ohio. The Buckeye State does not recognize voting as a fundamental human right. Voting is considered a universal and unalienable right in most other democracies. In Ohio, there’s no statewide system mandating all voters be treated equally before they lose their most basic and sacred right. In Ohio, often called the most Southern of Northern states, there is also no system in place that even requires giving a reason for disenfranchising a voter. No wonder the number of purged voters tripled last year.
Bob Fitrakis has a Ph.D. in political science and was an election observer in the Ohio 2004 general election, Ohio’s 2008 primary and 2008 general elections. He was the director of the Free Press Election Protection Project. This article was originally published by https://freepress.org.