20 Years Later, NVRA – and Controversy – Still Going Strong in Ohio

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[Image courtesy of discoverohio]

Last Monday, May 20th was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA changed American elections in several fundamental ways – including teeing up the fierce partisan “access vs. integrity” debates that rage today.

Proof that NVRA is still a rich source of controversy came after recent reports that the State of Ohio was implementing some overdue provisions required in the Act. Cleveland.com has more:

Twenty years after the National Voter Registration Act was enacted, Ohio appears ready to comply with a key provision of the federal law.

This month, the secretary of state’s office began distributing change of address information from driving records to county boards of elections at least twice a week. That information can then be used by the county boards to update addresses for registered voters.

Effectively sharing that data is a component of the voter registration act. Despite being law since 1993, Ohio was not in compliance with that requirement.

In moving toward compliance with the so-called motor-voter law, Husted sent a directive to elections boards across Ohio this month with instructions on how to handle the data. It mandates that the data be processed by the county boards at least once a week.

The regular exchange of data should help avoid large-volume transfers, said Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Husted.

“We are pushing data twice a week,” McClellan said. “Now the data exchanges they are receiving are much smaller because they’re getting them on a regular basis.”

Ohio’s lack of compliance spans the tenures of three previous secretaries of state — Republicans Bob Taft and Ken Blackwell and Democrat Jennifer Brunner. McClellan wouldn’t speculate on why previous offices had not been in compliance, but acknowledged that when Husted took office, there were technological barriers to transferring the data.

More specifically, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles computer systems couldn’t communicate with those in the secretary of state’s office.

While those problems were being resolved, the state also improved its statewide voter registration database. In 2011, only 20 percent of the voter records had each of three identifiers — driver’s license number, last four digits of a Social Security number and a date of birth. That database has grown, and now 80 percent of the voter records are complete.

This action – which at long last links motor vehicle data to election data – is a centerpiece of NVRA and is a huge leap forward for Ohio.

However, increased technological capability is also enabling Ohio to implement another provision of NVRA which Democrats are far less happy about:

Husted also directed a supplemental mailing to voters who have not voted in two years as a means of determining if those addresses are still current. Voters would be able to respond to the the mailing via letter or by using the online change of address tool on the secretary of state’s website.

Those who do not respond to the notice, and who do not vote over two federal election cycles, could be removed from the voter rolls.

That prompted criticism from Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat from Kent. Clyde, an attorney, [who] for a time was a law clerk for Brunner and later worked for the Franklin County Board of Elections after passing the bar, overseeing setup for that county’s early voting in the 2008 presidential election.

In her view, the notices target people for not voting enough, which she says is prohibited. That makes the action an improper discriminatory mailing.

“Secretary of State Husted claims that this mailing is part of his recent effort to follow the federal motor voter law. That is false. It is a violation of the federal motor voter law to send a discriminatory mailing and then use it to purge voters from the registration rolls,” she said in a statement after Husted issued his directive.

This disagreement has been a constant feature of NVRA implementation since its enactment – the law (42 USC § 1973gg-6) does give states the authority to do the kind of list maintenance currently considered in Ohio, but its unpopularity with Democrats is as old as the Act itself.

Controversy aside, it’s good to see Ohio using its upgraded technological capability to come into compliance with the NVRA. If nothing else, the state’s effort to allow voters to update their voting addresses online is a huge leap forward and should reduce the number of individuals encountering problems at the polls because of a change of address.

But, of course, one never puts controversy completely aside in Ohio; it will be interesting to see if the list maintenance efforts that accompany the other voter outreach programs survive the outcry.

If nothing else, it’s impressive that the NVRA still has this kind of influence 20 years after its passage.

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