Push is on to improve Ohio voter registration, though methods still being debated

This voting sticker, designed by student Emily Legg, was chosen in May to be the new sticker in Ohio. Photo courtesy the Secretary of State's Office.

Officials from both political parties have expressed the need to improve Ohio’s voter registration system.

How best to do that is still being decided. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who oversees the state’s elections process, has lent support to registration reform. He is among those calling for a way to register to vote or change one’s voting information while interacting with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. 

Two proposed bills in the Ohio Statehouse include such a plan, but have notable differences.

State Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville. Photo courtesy the Ohio Senate website.

In the Ohio Senate, a pair of legislators have introduced a bipartisan bill to create an automated system involving the BMV. Sens. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Vernon Sykes, D-Akron are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 186. Though not exactly the automatic, opt-out system advocates have hoped for, the two said in sponsor testimony Tuesday it would streamline the registration process.

Under SB 186, a person visiting the BMV to renew a driver’s license would provide to the agency their personal information as is standard. When done with their BMV business, the digital screen at the counter would directly ask them if they wanted to use the information given to also register to vote in Ohio. 

If already registered to vote, the person could use this automated system to update their address on file with the Secretary of State’s office or even to change their party affiliation.

It is already current practice that BMV workers ask customers about voter registration. The system is not automated, though. If a person indicates they’d like to register, the BMV offers them a form to fill out. 

SB 186’s sponsors said more people are apt to register at the BMV if the system is quicker and conducted on the digital screens in front of them. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia already have a system like this, Manning and Sykes said.

State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron. Photo courtesy the Ohio Senate website.

The two said they’ve been in touch with leaders of the Secretary of State and Ohio BMV offices to best craft this legislation. More adjustments may be forthcoming, and if approved, the bill would take effect two years after signed into law. 

In the Ohio House, Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, has introduced a bill that would go further than the Senate version to grow the state’s voter rolls. 

House Bill 466 would create a similar automated system involving the BMV allowing someone to register or update their registration at the agency.

Most notably, HB 466 would make voter registration automatic for students of Ohio public and private schools once they reach a certain age. In essence, the bill would require schools to submit lists of eligible students to the Secretary of State’s office to be registered by the time they are of voting age. The student would be duly registered (and notified as such by their respective county’s board of elections) unless they chose to opt-out of the registration process. 

Sweeney is joined by 35 co-sponsors in supporting HB 466, all of whom are Democrats. The bill awaits an initial hearing in the State and Local Government Committee. 

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland. Photo courtesy the Ohio House website.

Similar to the BMV, Ohio high schools currently offer students information and forms detailing how to vote. Sweeney wants to make voter registration an “opt-out” system rather than an “opt-in” one.

“This is a policy that has garnered bipartisan support in the country and here in Ohio,” she said in a statement, “and I am confident we can get it done.” 

A separate campaign, the Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections, is working on a ballot initiative that would also tackle this issue. The group reported having filed paperwork with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office on Feb. 10.