People who haven’t voted since 2008 may be in for an unpleasant surprise on Election Day.
At least 30,000 people who haven’t cast ballots and didn’t respond to voter confirmation notices have been purged from Ohio voter rolls since 2012, according to a Reuters study.
Concerned about what this may mean for our readers, we reached out to Lorain County Board of Elections director Paul Adams. He said he didn’t know how many were purged in the county specifically for inactivity.
The total number of county voters purged last year was 11,666 including 656 in Amherst and South Amherst, 1,860 in Oberlin and the surrounding townships, and 267 in Wellington and the surrounding townships. The list includes those who died or moved as well as for inactivity.
Purges have been done for at least 20 years and began being done annually in 2014. They include two elements.
The first is a change of address process in which the Secretary of State’s office matches its voter records with U.S. Postal Service records of voters who have filed change of address notifications. The second is the supplemental process in which voters who haven’t voted for two years are sent voter verification notices. If they don’t respond within four years of receiving the cards, they are purged from the voter rolls.
Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, said the supplemental process is designed to improve the accuracy of voter rolls and prevent the long lines and confusion that occurred in the 2004 presidential election. “Clean voter rolls, encouraging people to vote early, these are the things that help prevent those kinds of things on Election Day,” Eck said.
In a June 14 news release, Husted announced Ohio has joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, a national nonprofit group working with 19 states and the District of Columbia to improve voter roll accuracy and increase voter registration.
The release said since Husted took office in 2011, voter roll improvements have resulted in more absentee and provisional ballots being counted than during the past eight election cycles when Jennifer Brunner and Ken Blackwell served as secretary of state.
While the Republican Husted said he’s trying to increase voting, critics say the supplemental process is a partisan effort to suppress the Democratic vote. They point to the Reuters study which found voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton counties were about twice as likely to be purged for inactivity as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.
In Cleveland, 5 percent of voters in neighborhoods that backed President Obama by more than 60 percent in 2012 were purged last year due to inactivity. In neighborhoods where Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote, 2.5 percent of registered voters were removed for inactivity. The study said the disparity was due to Republicans voting more in congressional and presidential elections.
Eck noted purges have been conducted under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. “Every voter in Ohio is treated exactly the same,” he said.
However, Daniel Tokaji, a professor with Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said Democratic voters are being targeted by Husted in violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which forbids purging voters for inactivity.
Tokaji is part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute — an organization of black community activists and union members — and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition said the supplemental process punishes homeless people who don’t have permanent addresses and are unlikely to receive voter confirmation notices. The lawsuit said about one million notices were sent out last year and most were confirmation notices.
“These purges have had a tremendous impact on voters statewide and have resulted in the disenfranchisement of voters who had not moved or otherwise become ineligible,” the lawsuit said. “Voters of whom Section 8 of the NVRA was specifically designed to protect.”
Tokaji, who noted his work on the suit is unrelated to OSU, said Georgia is the only other state purging voters strictly for inactivity and it is also being sued. Tokaji said Husted is obligated to follow federal law.
“This program doesn’t plain and simple,” he said. “At least 48 other states have found a way to comply with federal law while still removing those voters who are genuinely ineligible.”
Tokaji noted that Husted has a record of trying to implement voting-related measures found to be unconstitutional. Last month, a federal judge struck down an Ohio law curtailing early voting and same-day registration and voting.
The 2014 law cut early voting from 35 to 28 days and eliminated the “golden week” in which residents could register and cast absentee ballots. The judge ruled the law violated the federal Voting Rights Act and disproportionately affected black people.
Anthony Giardini, Lorain County Democratic Party chairman, said given Husted’s history, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Giardini said it’s understandable that many people, particularly elderly people, only vote in presidential elections and might disregard a confirmation notice thinking it was junk mail or that it didn’t apply to them.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, you know what’s motivating it.”
However, Helen Hurst, Lorain County Republican Party chairwoman, said the secretary of state’s office has a legitimate right to update voter rolls to ensure accuracy and efficiency. “If this is an effort to eliminate fraud, so be it,” she said.
Amherst city council member Jennifer Waslik also cited fraud as a justification. The Republican Waslik said aggressive purging is needed to prevent people using the names of dead voters on absentee ballots. “It’s a weak link,” she said.
Nonetheless, Waslik couldn’t name a single case of voter fraud in Amherst.
Lorain County did have a prominent case involving voter fraud allegations last year but it involved residency rather than dead people. Lorain councilman Dennis Flores alleged several people who voted in the Democratic primary by provisional ballot for his opponent Ryan Horn weren’t living in his precinct. Flores won back the seat after a Lorain County judge determined five ineligible voters voted for Horn.
However, the Flores case, in which no criminal charges have been filed, is extremely rare. While voter fraud is often mentioned by advocates of restrictive voting laws, documented cases of it, particularly voter impersonation, are minuscule.
Husted’s office said last year that 145 non-citizens — none in Lorain County — were illegally registered to vote in 2014 and 291 in 2013. That’s about 0.005 percent of Ohio’s roughly 7.7 million registered voters. Husted said 17 non-citizens appear to have voted illegally in the 2012 presidential election and four of them were convicted.
Documented fraud cases nationally are also infinitesimal. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center of Justice found only a sliver of voter fraud claims were accurate, including voter impersonation allegations. For example, in 2000 in Georgia, only one of 5,412 reports of dead voters names being used was confirmed and it was due to a misspelling of a last name, not fraud, according to the report.
In 2005 in Michigan, 132 votes were allegedly cast with dead voters’ names. An investigation revealed nearly all were absentee ballots sent to voters who died before the election and the ballots weren’t cast or the voters died after casting ballots.
The report said other fraud allegations were primarily due to computer or typographical errors or honest mistakes by voters such as convicts who didn’t realize they were ineligible to vote or people receiving mail at an address different from the one they listed as their legal address. By exaggerating voter fraud, the report said policy makers are able to enact unwarranted voter restrictions.
“Moreover, mislabeling problems as ‘voter fraud’ distracts attention from the real election issues that need to be resolved,” report author Justin Levitt wrote. “It draws attention away from problems best addressed, for example, by resource allocation or poll worker education or implementation of longstanding statutory mandates.”
Allison Ricker, Ohio League of Women voters co-president, said technology has reduced confusion at the polls but it’s possible some voters may show up not realizing they’ve been purged. She and Adams urged voters to check their status before the Oct. 11 voter registration deadline.
Lorain County residents can verify they’re eligible by visiting www.loraincountyelections.com and clicking on the voter registration status tab.“If they’re not registered, they have more than enough time to get registered for the November election,” Adams said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1661 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow| Oberlin News Tribune Lorain County residents can verify they’re eligible by visiting www.loraincountyelections.com and clicking on the voter registration status tab.