Election policy should be driven by data
Wednesday, July 13, 2011 06:42 AM
The Columbus Dispatch
There has been a distressing pattern in Ohio when it comes to election law. One party will propose sweeping changes, and the other will uniformly oppose them. Any Ohio resident who pays even the slightest attention could be forgiven for believing that there is no right or wrong way to run elections, just a Democratic or Republican way. More cynically, many residents may believe that their elected representatives view elections as a game, hoping to change the rules in favor of their party whenever they get the chance.
But elections are not a game, and all positions about how they should be run are not equal. In 2008 and 2009, I chaired a bipartisan summit of ideologically diverse Ohio election officials, academics and voting-rights groups for the purpose of improving election law and administration in the state. The first agreed-upon principle was this: Election policy decisions should be driven by systematic factual analysis and not by partisan agenda. We know that some practices improve elections, while some do not. And we know that some proposals are just plain bad, because they make elections more expensive, more difficult to administer and less likely to produce legitimate results that reflect the will of the people.
Unfortunately, a proposal by Reps. Robert Mecklenborg and Louis Blessing, both Cincinnati Republicans, to institute one of the country's most restrictive voter-ID requirements falls into the bad category. The bill, which has passed the House, would make it much harder for tens of thousands of Ohioans to vote. It also would greatly increase the cost of running elections. Proponents claim that it would dramatically reduce voter fraud, but the evidence shows it would do nothing of the kind.
Despite their majority in the Senate, Republicans were unable to pass this proposal along with their other election priorities before breaking for summer recess. The reported reason was that several prominent Republicans, including Secretary of State Jon Husted, thought the bill went too far.
But there are rumors that the legislature will take it up again during the special session today or when they return in the fall. That would be a shame.
First, the bill would place a severe burden on the ability of many Ohioans to vote. Ohio already requires residents to present identification before casting a regular ballot. This law goes much further by stating that Ohioans can cast a regular ballot only if they present one of four forms of ID: a driver's license, a state ID issued by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a military ID or a U.S. passport. This is more restrictive than the vast majority of voter-ID laws in the country. In contrast with other states, students would not be permitted to use their university IDs. Voters could not use utility bills, as is currently allowed under Ohio law.
The fact is, many Ohio residents won't have one of these IDs. A 2006 national study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law showed that 11 percent of voters do not have ready access to these kinds of IDs. That finding is consistent with every independent study before and since, many of which highlight the fact that students, the poor, minorities and the elderly are particularly likely to be prevented from voting by such restrictive laws.
In addition, this bill would substantially add to the costs of running elections. A fiscal note attached to the bill minimizes its costs only by ignoring the state's obligation to make the required IDs accessible to all voters without undue burden. States that have passed similar laws, such as Indiana, have seen their election budgets more than double in the past few years as they complied with these requirements. At a minimum, this has meant expanding the number of offices that issue IDs and extending their operating hours. It also has meant undertaking substantial voter outreach and public-education efforts to ensure voters are aware of the new requirements and procedures for obtaining the IDs.
But what about preventing fraud? Requiring voters to present a very specific type of government-issued photo identification at the polls will address only one kind of fraud: a person pretending to be someone hs is not in order to cast a vote. No one has shown this to be a problem in Ohio. As Husted has noted, Ohio law already has sufficient checks to prevent in-person voter fraud; people don't "call AEP and establish utilities in their name to commit voter fraud."
The Ohio legislature should break its habit of rushing to change the rules of election administration with the votes of only one party in the hope of gaming the next election. It makes for bad law and a cynical electorate. Legislators should base their decisions on objective analysis and data, with an eye toward improving elections for all eligible residents. They should reject this harmful proposal.
Lawrence Norden is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.