By Bob Fitrakis
Is election reform brewing in the Buckeye State? In an extensive and well-argued editorial the Dispatch made the case for the integration of key state government databases into a statewide electronic voter registration system under the control of the Secretary of State’s office, as proposed in pending legislation.
Ohio’s voter registration databases are in disarray. In the 2008 presidential election, many voters found their right to vote challenged in Ohio because of discrepancies in state and federal databases. For example, under Social Security I am listed as Robert John Fitrakis, but on my driver’s license it’s Robert J. Fitrakis. On the voting rolls I’m Robert Fitrakis. If the states would integrate their databases and establish a single form for voter registration, bizarre challenges over middle initials and names may become a thing of the past.
But privately controlled non-transparent electronic voter registration systems pose a great threat to democracy. Each county keeps its own records, a few have told the Free Press they don’t know how to use the Secretary of State’s data system. Many counties have outsourced their voting rolls to private vendors using secret proprietary software – the same vendors who also own electronic voting machines suspected of manipulating election results.
Ohio purged more than 1,250,000 voters between the 2004-2008 elections. Many of these voters lost their ability to vote because of electronic poll books using proprietary software and hardware provided or controlled by private companies with questionable loyalties. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s Everest study of voting machine security indicated that while the hardware and software connected with electronic voting is vulnerable to hacking, there is virtually no security in place to protect the electronic poll books that contain the registration lists.
In 2004, nearly 10,000 Cleveland area voters learned this the hard way when a Diebold electronic poll book had a supposed “glitch” and purged them from the rolls just prior to Election Day preventing them from voting.
The Dispatch’s logic on several vital points is impressive, although certain safeguards against any centralized database manipulation must be in place. The specter of former Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell still haunts Ohio elections.
It is worthwhile to take the Dispatch editorial point by point. The capital city’s daily monopoly begins with an obvious criticism: “Ohio’s county boards of elections spend more time and money shuffling paper around in an outmoded voter registration system than on anything else.” Citing the example of Maricopa County in Arizona, they note that online registration costs are 3 cents per registrant, compared with 82 cents for those registering on paper. The cost saving comes from pushing a button at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and sending the exact same data to the Secretary of State’s office and the county boards of elections versus filling a registration form out on paper, mailing it to both of those entities and having it keyed in.
A key point not mentioned by the Dispatch in this process is that every eligible citizen that registers to vote should be given a copy of that registration by the BMV or, say, the Ohio Dept. of Job and Family Services, which can be used as proof of registration if there’s any dispute when casting a vote.
Paper trails and receipts are a necessity in guaranteeing voting rights. Systems must be in place to assure that central database activity initiated by the Secretary of State must be transparent to the public, and should never be controlled or manipulated by private companies using proprietary software.
The Dispatch editorial was driven by an issue near and dear to the Free Press editorial staff – the unacceptable high numbers of Ohioans who were forced to cast provisional ballots in the last two presidential elections. These back-of-the-bus Jim Crow ballots, as the Free Press has documented repeatedly, are primarily cast by minorities and the inner-city poor.
As the Free Press reported following the 2004 election, “An earlier analysis in the Free Press of the 155,428 unofficial provisional ballots recorded at the Secretary of State’s website found that a clear majority, 85,096, came from the 15 counties Kerry won.”
What the Dispatch editorial fails to note is that a shocking 10% of all Ohio voters on Election Day 2008 were forced to vote provisionally. Provisional voters reached record numbers in 2008 with Ohio reporting 193,000 provisionals cast on Election Day. Election observers noted up to 20% provisional ballots cast in some inner city precincts. Free Press research documented that in comparable battleground states like Missouri and Virginia, very few voters were forced to vote provisional ballots — only .02% (7,000 voters) and 01% (4,500 voters) respectively. Ohio’s numbers are so staggeringly high in contrast, they should be challenged by under the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
The Dispatch comes down firming on the side of Ohio public agencies asking Ohioans if they want to register to vote or update their voter registration data. “Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner; Franklin County’s Republican deputy elections director Matt Damschroder, and the Brennan Center for Justice in New York all agree that any Ohio election-reform law should require workers at BMV and Job and Family Services offices to ask clients whether they want to register to vote or have their registration updated…” the Dispatch wrote.
But why stop there? Every public college and university in the state should be required to do the same thing. Last time I checked all the public higher education institutions had computer systems capable of transmitting data. Better yet, all of the public high schools in Ohio should be required by law to ask their students if they want to register to vote on their 18th birthday and transmit that data to the Secretary of State’s office as well as their local board of elections.
Ideally, the solution should be for the state of Ohio, and all states for that matter, to assert an affirmative duty to register all citizens automatically to vote when they are 18 years old. The right to vote should never be taken away from a citizen because a private company controls the poll books or because a partisan political party challenges someone’s identity based on minor discrepancies in a public database.