LaRose: Voter registration change should come from Statehouse, not ballot amendment

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose

It’s been a busy week for Frank LaRose.

The Ohio Secretary of State is overseeing the early voting season ahead of next month’s primary election. He recently welcomed more than 200 new citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the Ohio Statehouse. On Tuesday, he testified in favor of a Senate bill that would streamline Ohio’s voter registration process.

LaRose has also found time to continue his feud with Kent State University for inviting Jane Fonda to an upcoming tribute to the Kent State shootings from a half century ago.

LaRose has been involved in crafting Senate Bill 186, a bipartisan measure that modernizes the voter registration process as Ohioans come in contact with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Young drivers could easily register there as they turn 18, while older adults could update their addresses when renewing their driver’s licenses every four years as required by law. 

SB 186 was introduced by state Sens. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Vernon Sykes, D-Akron.

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

Voter registration can already take place at BMV offices, but is typically conducted by offering drivers paperwork to fill out. The new process, if SB 186 becomes law, would happen through digital means and would be as easy as pressing “yes” on a screen. 

In testimony to the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee, LaRose said the law would lead to a greater number of registered voters and a more accurate voter roll. 

Under current practices, the Ohio Secretary of State Office conducts list maintenance work to identify inactive voters. The state sends mail to a voter’s address on file, and those who do not respond to the mail or vote within a six-year timespan are removed from the voter rolls. 

Under SB 186, Ohioans making contact with the BMV would confirm their latest voting address at least every four years, thus regularly resetting their personal eligibility clock. 

LaRose said Tuesday the current system for list maintenance was put into place decades ago.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” he testified, “but it was sort of the best they could do 20 years ago to come up with a way to remove updated data from the voter rolls.”

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

Statehouse vs. Constitutional Amendment

The proposed Senate bill would make voter registration automated, but not automatic. LaRose highlighted this distinction in his testimony. Whereas other proposals call for eligible Ohioans to be automatically registered to vote upon turning 18 years old, this bill does not go that far. 

The process would be very simple, but residents would still have to agree at the BMV counter to be registered. LaRose said he is not in favor of an automatic system, where “some bureaucrat flips a switch” the moment someone turns 18. The secretary said he prefers a system that still gives someone a choice of whether or not to be a registered voter. 

Besides SB 186, there are two other efforts to improve Ohio’s voter registration system and both involve an automatic version. 

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, is the sponsor of House Bill 466 that would automatically register Ohio students to vote at a certain age. Like SB 186, it would also automate the system at the BMV to allow someone to easily update their voting address there. 

Lastly is a proposed constitutional amendment, known as the Secure and Fair Elections Amendment, which supporters are trying to get on the 2020 General Election ballot this November. It too creates an automatic voter registration system. Additionally, it removes the current requirement that a person be registered for 30 days prior to Election Day. This would allow for someone to register and cast a ballot on the same day. 

LaRose testified that he prefers that change come via the Ohio Statehouse with legislators crafting, editing and voting on a bill, rather than via constitutional amendment with Ohioans making the decision directly at the polls. 

Voting “best practices” change as technology improves, LaRose said, offering another reason why change should be enacted into the Ohio Revised Code rather than being etched into the Ohio Constitution. 

At another point during his testimony, state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, asked how the bill might improve the number of Ohioans registered to vote. LaRose said it would improve figures somewhat, but that the real value is in allowing for an easier system to update addresses for those already registered. 

State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green

“Ohio already has an incredibly high voter registration rate,” LaRose told lawmakers. “We’re a leader in the nation on many aspects of voting, but voting registration is one of them. Over 93% of eligible Ohioans are registered to vote.” 

LaRose’s submitted written testimony offers a slightly different take on that statistic: “over 90 percent of Ohioans are already registered to vote,” he wrote, omitting the “eligible” qualifier. 

This is a far higher percentage than is reported by the U.S. Census. As of November 2018, the Census reported that 66.9% of eligible American citizens are registered to vote. Among the 50 states, Ohio ranked 18th with 70.2% of eligible residents registered to vote.

The Capital Journal inquired with LaRose’s office regarding his assertion that over 93% of eligible Ohioans are registered to vote. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to confirm the secretary’s statistic.

Catherine Turcer, the executive director for the voters’ rights group Common Cause Ohio, also testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

The Associated Press has reported that 149,736 absentee ballots had been requested by mail or in-person as of Feb. 25. Of those, 18,189 votes have been cast. For more details on casting an absentee ballot and to see a schedule for in-person voting, visit the Ohio Secretary of State’s website

The primary election is March 17.