Voting Advocates Call For Changes To Absentee Ballot Mailing, Voter Registration Bills

Voting advocates told a Senate committee Wednesday that a proposal to restrict off-year absentee ballot application mailings would confuse voters and cause votes to be rejected due to petty mistakes on the envelopes.

Several witnesses voiced concern with the Senate's latest elections bill (SB 205 ) and urged members of the Senate State Government Oversight & Reform Committee to expand another voting-related measure (SB 200 ) to allow for online voter registration.

Witnesses representing the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and Ohio Fair Elections Network cautioned that a provision in Sen. Bill Coley's (R-Middletown) legislation could violate the federal Civil Rights Act that prevents voters from being disenfranchised because of immaterial errors or omissions in voting paperwork.

The measure would prevent election officials from counting absentee ballots in envelopes with incomplete identifying information.

Camille Wimbish, of Ohio Fair Elections Network, said absentee ballot envelopes with incorrect zip codes could be improperly rejected under the proposal.

"As long as the absentee envelope contains sufficient information to identify the voter and determine that he or she is a qualified elector, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits Boards from throwing out an eligible ballot on the basis that the absentee ballot is incomplete," she said.

Gary Daniels, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, expressed similar concerns about including the requirement for absentee ballots to be complete.

"The overall purpose of the bill appears to many to be to discourage voting," he said.

The witnesses also criticized the proposal to allow unsolicited ballot application mailings to voters only for presidential and gubernatorial elections and making them contingent on a legislative appropriation.

Jocelyn Travis, president of the Ohio Conference NAACP, said not allowing local boards of election to send out absentee ballot applications was "a travesty."

"It is also extremely difficult to have voters trust or understand the process when the language reads that absent voter ballot applications may be sent out during certain years if the funds are allocated by the General Assembly," she said. "This certainly creates a highly political environment that cannot be in the best interest of the voters. Please do not allow this very harmful legislation to become a law in Ohio."

Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said the restrictions on absentee ballot application mailings run contrary to the sponsor's stated intent to make the process more uniform.

"From the voter's standpoint, a uniform policy would be to send an absentee application every year," she said, adding that her organization has fielded many questions from voters wondering why they didn't get an application like they did last year.

"But SB205 doesn't even promise that a voter could expect to receive an application every other year, as that is conditioned on funding being appropriated. So in reality, Ohio voters may or may not receive an application every other year but only if there are funds appropriated. Surely this is not uniform," Ms. Davis said.

LWV concurs with the Ohio Association of Election Officials' proposal that unsolicited absentee ballot applications should be mailed to all voters every year, she said.

Ms. Davis also questioned language that would prohibit election officials from helping voters complete an absentee ballot application or envelope unless they are voter is blind, disabled, illiterate, or unable to come to the polling location.

"This provision sends the message that election officials may not assist voters. Not only is that counter intuitive, it also places unnecessary obstacles between a voter and exercising the right to vote," she said. "There are any number of circumstances in which a voter may ask for assistance, from forgetting their reading glasses to having a squirming child in tow to having a question about the proper way to fill out the form."

Sen. Coley said in an interview that he was willing to address some of the concerns and expects to prepare amendments in the next week or two.

The sponsor said he was willing to consider changes to help disabled voters and was working with county commissioners to discuss the feasibility of funding off-year election absentee ballot application mailings.

"I don't want to expend local funds on that without the consent of the local governments. So we want to talk with them on that," he said about the latter issue.

As for making the even-year mailings contingent on a legislative appropriation, Sen. Coley said the General Assembly legislature should have flexibility to forego the absentee ballot application mailing "just in case an emergency should come up."

Sen. Coley also stood by the proposal to require complete information on absentee ballot envelopes and noted that no witness has said the five identifying items, such as the voter's name, address, signature, and date of birth, are immaterial. "They are important. They need to be there."

However, codifying Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's directive on voters' use of derivatives of their full names "may go a long way in clearing up some of those issues," he added.

"The whole purpose of the bill is to create uniformity and make sure everybody plays by the same rules," he said. "We're going to work with them and try to make this a better product that everybody can support."

Voter Registration: Several witnesses urged members to expand Sen. Joe Uecker's (R-Loveland) bill on voter registration data sharing to allow Ohioans to register to vote online.

Clark County Board of Elections Director Matthew Tlachac, testified in support of the bill on behalf of the OAEO, saying it would ensure a more accurate voter registration database.

Information spread across several state agencies could be accessed to verify voter information, ensure that name changes have been processed and addresses are current, he said. "It is not a stretch to say that SB200 will help reduce provisional ballots in Ohio, which our association believes to be a laudable goal."

The legislation also includes a provision to allow Ohio to join the electronic registration information center (ERIC), an initiative of the PEW Charitable Trust to allow state to share voter registration information.

Mr. Tlachac asked members to consider amending the measure to allow voters to update their voter registration information online and cited language in two pending bills (HB 78 and SB 175 ) that could be included.

"While the sharing of information amongst agencies is significant, the best way to update voter registration remains the voters themselves," he said.

Sen. Uecker asked whether the proposal to open state databases for voter registration verification purposes was a separate issue than online registration. Mr. Tlachac agreed it was, but added that the two issues could be combined.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio urged lawmakers to "truly modernize Ohio's election system" by amending the legislation to include online voter registration.

According to the witness, permitting online registration would be convenient for potential voters, as well as cut down on data entry error, thus leading to more accurate voter rolls.

"Online voter registration creates greater access for voters, eliminates human error in the voter registration database and reduces the work load for boards of election and saves taxpayer money," she said in written testimony. "I urge you to amend Senate Bill 200 to move our critically important elections system into the 21st Century."

Had online voter registration been in place between 2010 and 2012, the witness said, county boards of election could have saved a collective $1.5 million to $3 million, according to the Secretary of State's office.

She added that other states are considering similar proposals and that National Conference of State Legislatures data indicates 19 have passed online voter registration bills.

Ms. Davis said LWV supports efforts to modernize Ohio's voter registration system, like the use of electronic poll books (SB 109 ), voter registration database management and online voter registration.

"By adopting these electronic practices, government agencies can eliminate costly and time-consuming steps in election administration, reduce errors and increase the ease and convenience of the elections process for both their workers and voters," she said.

Specifically in terms of this bill, she said, the league supports several provisions, particularly those regarding voter registration database sharing and database mismatches.

Echoing the call for online voter registration, Ms. Davis said the league is hopeful that the committee will take up that issue, as well. She stressed the importance of "up-to-date voter registration lists," saying they play a key role in efficient managements of the polls.

"In nearly every area of American life, individuals are now able to conduct business accurately and quickly online, including buying tickets, updating information, paying bills and banking," she said. "It is time for election systems to join the 21st Century through secure online voter registration."
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