Ohio could become latest state to let voters register online

Senate Bill 175, introduced last week by Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, would allow Ohioans to register to vote online, provided they have a drivers license or state identification card. The system would expand an existing one developed by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, which in 2012 began allowing people to update their voter registration online, but not register as a new voter.

Nineteen other states have approved allowing online voting registration, including 11 in the last two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“What’s remarkable to me is that it’s all kinds of states that are looking at it,” said Wendy Underhill, a NCSL researcher. “And when I say that, I mean large states, small states, Democrat states, Republican states. It seems like it’s the one issue that has an appeal to people in all kinds of situations.”

Online voter registration is catching on among state legislators because it’s popular with voters in states who have implemented it, and it makes maintaining voter registries cheaper for local governments.

“The experiences in the first two states, Arizona and Washington [which pioneered online voter registration in 2002], were overwhelmingly popular and positive and cost-saving,” Underhill said.

While online voting systems are potentially vulnerable to hackers — elections officials in Miami-Dade (Fla.) County in July 2012 detected thousands of bogus online requests for absentee ballots — even potential critics say with appropriate security measures, electronic voter registration can be easier to monitor for fraud than paper registries.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, said his office could implement an online voter registration system at no additional cost to the state.

“It’s just the next step in modernizing our election system. It will make it easier for voters to register, and make it more secure, and improve the integrity of the system,” Husted said.

“Everywhere it’s been done, it’s been shown to save local boards lots of money,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, a bipartisan group.

Online voter registration might be the only recent election reform effort that isn’t broadly controversial, said Underhill, the NCSL researcher.

Case in point: Republican Ohio lawmakers previously approved online voter registration as part of House Bill 194, a 2011 elections reform. But Republicans repealed the bill in the face of a likely referendum over other elements of the bill, including those that limited the number of days people could cast early votes.

“Elections reforms bills in my short two and a half years here tend to become these contentious things when they don’t really need to be,” LaRose said. “But I think this is something where we can find common points of agreement.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns with LaRose’s bill. Peg Rosenfield, an elections specialist for the League of Women Voters for Ohio, said she is reviewing an element of SB175 that requires people who are registering online to have a state-issued photo ID or a drivers license first.

People without IDs tend to be minorities and elderly people and account for around 10 percent of the population, Rosenfield said.

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and that’s hard for certain parts of the population to do,” Rosenfield said. “So it doesn’t seem to be quite fair.”

The requirement is in place so state officials can take the signature someone provides when getting a photo ID and share it with poll workers for Election Day verification, LaRose said. Every other state with an online voter registration system uses the photo ID requirement as a security measure for that reason, he said.

“We’re not talking about a restriction, we’re talking about an addition,” said LaRose, who opposes photo ID requirements for actual voting. “There’s always the old-fashioned way: you can go to your board of elections and print out a form. All the old mechanisms for registering to vote are still in place. This is just an additional convenience.”

Ohio Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, said she also has concerns about another aspect of LaRose’s bill that would allow people to request printed absentee ballots online, but only if they first provide a drivers license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. She said a voter’s signature on the absentee ballot should be good enough.

But Turner, who will likely challenge Husted in 2014, said she’s supportive of what the bill is trying to accomplish.

“It’s all about access and taking down barriers and roadblocks so that people are able to participate in a democracy, and this bill certainly is going in the right direction,” Turner said.

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