The Ohio Statehouse Rotunda <span class='image-credits'>Gary Kessler</span>

Civics Essential: Do you know your rights and responsibilities as a voter?

Editor’s Note: Since publication of this August 2018 article, a federal appeals court on Oct. 31 ordered boards of election in Ohio to count ballots for the 2018 midterm elections cast by thousands of people previously purged from the state’s voter rolls because of inactivity. Voter advocacy groups have argued that the inactive voters weren’t adequately instructed that their registrations would be cancelled if they didn’t respond to a postcard mailed to their homes or vote within a four-year period. A three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that votes cast by people purged from the rolls between 2011 and 2015 must be counted if they still live in the same county of their last registration and if they are not disqualified from voting because of a felony conviction, mental incapacity or death. In June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s voter purging processes were constitutional. The latest legal dispute focuses on the postcard notices the state sent to inactive voters. The original story follows in its entirety.
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Larry Harmon, a Navy veteran and software engineer from the Akron area, voted in the 2008 presidential election but sat out the election in 2012 because he didn’t like the candidates. But when he went to vote on a ballot issue in 2015, election workers wouldn’t let him vote because he wasn’t on their list. Ohio claimed to have sent him a postcard in 2011 to confirm his address, but Harmon doesn’t remember receiving it. After all, postcards can appear to be one more piece of junk mail.

 

It didn’t matter.

 

Harmon was one of 2 million voters in Ohio kicked off the rolls from 2011 to 2016 under the most aggressive voter purging law in the nation. That law and its sponsor, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, was challenged in court by Harmon and a number of rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. But in June, the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Ohio sends a postcard to every registered voter who has not voted in the last two years. Voters who fail to return the postcard are purged from the rolls if they do not vote in the next four years. Critics say Ohio’s rules go against the intent, if not the letter, of the National Voting Registration Act of 1993, which was meant to reverse decades of voter suppression. The NVRA prohibits voter purges that “result in the removal of the name of any person. . . by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” 

 

But the Supreme Court ruled that the additional failure of not returning a residency postcard was enough to justify removing a voter. During the 2012 election, Ohio sent postcards to 1.5 million people — or about one in every five voters in the state. Of those 1.5 million voters, only .3 million, or about 20 percent, returned their cards. Does that mean 1.2 million Ohio voters had moved and not re-registered? It’s more likely that hundreds of thousands of eligible voters lost their chance to vote.

 

In other matters of voter rights, Ohio laws fall “somewhere in the middle in their restrictiveness” compared to other states, says Dan Takoji, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. For instance, Ohio requires some form of identification for voting, including a utility bill or bank statement, but not a photo ID like some states.

 

And while registration in Ohio can be done up to 30 days before an election, the state eliminated four years ago its “golden week” that allowed citizens to register and vote early at the same time.

 

“Ohio voters need to be sure that they check their voter registration and keep it up to date,” says Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters of Ohio. “If they vote infrequently, their name is eliminated from the rolls. And their registration must be updated if they moved.”

Jen Miller, Exec. Director, Ohio League of Women Voters at Ohio Statehouse Rotunda. Photo by Gary Kessler.

 

Voting is not just about exercising rights, it’s about making a difference. “You can’t effect any change at all or have your voice heard if you don’t vote,” says Charles R. Moses, chairman of the Capital Square Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting citizen awareness of Ohio government.

 

To check their voter registration, Ohioans can visit the website MyOhioVote.com. They can also register to vote, update their address, and check their polling location at the same site. The deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 9. You can register to vote at age 17 as long as you turn 18 by the November election.

 

If you don’t have Internet access, voter registration forms can be found at most public libraries, high schools, and social agencies. You can register to vote at any Bureau of Motor Vehicle locations and your county Board of Election offices.

 

Voters in Ohio must also make sure they bring the proper identification when they go to their polling location on election day. That can be an Ohio driver’s license or state ID card, a U.S. military ID with name and photo, a government ID with name, address and photo, or an original or copy of one of the following recent documents: a utility or cell phone bill, bank statement, pay stub, college or university document, and government check or document. A birth certificate or passport are not acceptable IDs.

 

Although on election day you are restricted to voting at your polling place, you can vote early in-person at your county Board of Elections offices starting the day after the registration deadline up to the day before the election. You can also request an absentee ballot and vote by mail.

Charles Moses, Chairman, Capitol Square Foundation in the Ohio Statehouse Atrium. Photo by Gary Kessler.

 

For a variety of reasons, some voters may be required to cast a provisional paper ballot — one that won’t be counted until the voter’s identity or current address is confirmed. Provisional ballots are issued when: 1) you don’t have proper ID; 2) you didn’t update your address but went to the polling place for your new address; 3) you requested an absentee ballot but decided to vote at your polling place instead.

 

Partisan politics are at the root of much of the debate surrounding voting laws, Tokaji said. That’s because in most states, including Ohio, elected officials supervise the election system. In Ohio, the Secretary of State oversees elections.

 

There is statewide debate about whether current rules are making it harder for minorities to vote. A Reuters’ study found that voters in predominantly black neighborhoods were purged from Ohio’s rolls at twice the rate of voters in predominantly white neighborhoods.

 

In other advanced democratic countries, Tokaji said, independent boards supervise the election system to avoid any influence from political parties. “Every other country looks at our system and says, ‘That’s crazy!’” he says.

 

What all this means for voters in Ohio is that they must be vigilant in protecting their right to vote. And, with the onslaught of fake news and social media manipulation, they must work harder than ever to learn the truth about the candidates and issues.

 

In the current highly charged political environment, voters shouldn’t trust just one source for the news, according to Moses. “Check the candidate websites and see what their positions are,” he says. “And then verify that through newspapers and other media outlets.”

 

Voters can also find non-partisan information about the candidates and their policies and other voter issues through the League of Women Voters website at Vote411.org. The non-profit league has been providing neutral election information for almost a century, Miller says.

 

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a major source of fake news, misinformation and outright lies about candidates and issues. To verify the truthfulness of information on social media sites, you can visit Snopes.com. To check on political ads, go to the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact.com.

 

If you’d like to know which individuals and organizations have contributed money to a candidate, you can visit the website of the non-profit watchdog organization, The Campaign Finance Institute, at FollowTheMoney.org.
 

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Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.
 

Read more articles by Jim DeBrosse.

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