Latest voting concern: Ohio voter rolls reduced by nearly half a million since 2008

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted
Office of the Ohio Secretary of State

A controversial voter ID law in Pennsylvania. A flawed bid to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls in Florida. The elimination of the last three days of early voting in Ohio.

As if all that wasn’t enough to worry about, voting rights advocates say they’re concerned about yet another development that could disenfranchise legitimate voters—one which has largely flown under the radar, despite its potential to affect the presidential race: A reduction of nearly half a million in the number of Ohio’s registered voters since 2008—seemingly concentrated in populous, Democratic-leaning areas—amid an aggressive effort by the state’s Republican leadership to pare the rolls.

The Advancement Project, a leading voting-rights group, has filed public records requests with Ohio’s counties to look into whether the process used to remove names from the rolls was legal, the group’s co-director, Penda Hair, told Lean Forward. “We are definitely concerned,” she said.

Diana Kasdan, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports voting rights, said her group, too, is “definitely taking a look at” the issue.

Subodh Chandra, a Democratic civil-rights lawyer based in Cleveland, was blunter. “What seems to be clear is that they’re making an effort to remove as many people from the rolls as possible before the presidential elections,” he said.

The Buckeye State is shaping up once again to be perhaps the single key battleground in the presidential race. But the state’s voting rolls have shrunk from 8.3 million on Election Day 2008 to 7.8 million at the start of September 2012, according to an analysis by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, based on data from the Secretary of State’s office and the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a decline of nearly 6 percent at a time when Ohio’s population, like that of most states, appears to be growing slightly. In 2004, President Bush won Ohio, and with it the election, but just 119,000 votes.

In the state’s most populous county, Cuyahoga, which includes Cleveland, the rolls have shrunk by nearly 20 percent, almost twice as large a percentage decline as any other county has seen. Thirty-five percent of Cuyahoga County residents are black or Hispanic, and President Obama won 70 percent of the vote there in 2008.

The reductions come on the heels of a concerted effort by Jon Husted (pictured), Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, to pare the state’s voting rolls. Husted already has attracted the ire of voting-rights groups and Democrats after at first approving a plan that would have allowed for longer early voting hours in GOP-leaning counties than in Democratic ones (he later backed down), then fighting an effort to restore the last three days of early voting, and firing two Democratic elections officials who stood up to him on the issue. Last month, Husted was scheduled to speak to the Tea Party group True the Vote, which has been widely accused of using intimidating tactics to suppress voting, before pulling out at the last minute. And he recently told a different Tea Party group that he hoped to see new voter ID measures implemented next year.

Federal law requires that states take steps to maintain accurate voting rolls, and even voting-rights groups acknowledge the importance of doing so. Since taking office in 2011, Husted has made cleaning up the rolls “a top priority of his administration,” his office said in a legal filing (pdf) made last week, in response to a lawsuit by True the Vote and another conservative group, aimed at forcing him to conduct a more aggressive purge.

Husted’s office has improved the process by which the state receives information on deceased voters, leading to the removal of 153,000 names from the rolls, according to a spokesman, Matthew McClellan. The office also has worked to eliminate duplicates, which has accounted for “hundreds of thousands” more removals, McClellan said. In addition, it has begun working with the Ohio DMV to improve the accuracy of the information in its database. And it asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for access to an immigration database which could have been used to pare the rolls on the basis of citizenship, but was denied. (After its own request was denied, Florida instead used a flawed state DMV database to conduct a controversial citizenship-based purge. McClellan said Ohio has not conducted a citizenship-based purge.)

“The rolls in Ohio are in the best shape that they’ve been in for years,” McClellan said.

In Cuyahoga County, many of the roughly 214,000 removals came in the summer of 2011, when the county took off around 100,000 voters who hadn’t voted in several years and hadn’t responded to a 2007 mailing. At that time, the county had discovered it had more people on the rolls than it had citizens of voting age. Another 93,000 were duplicates, Jane Platten, the county’s elections director, told Lean Forward.

Much of the impetus for the removal efforts came from the state, Platten added. “The state’s been real aggressive on making sure counties keep up with that,” she said.

But voting-rights advocates say there’s been little information about the process by which removals have been made across the state, raising concerns that legitimate voters could have been knocked off the rolls, with little time left before the election to find out and fix the problem.

Chandra singled out the removals of dead voters as a particular concern. “Because there’s no transparency, it’s hard to know whether or not they are removing people who are truly dead and should have been removed, or whether they are taking a hatchet-type approach,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a great expression of care about not making mistakes.”

“I’m concerned about the reasons for doing it this close to an election, and whether this is a systematic removal that would be prohibited within 90 days,” said Hair, noting that states are banned under federal law from conducting  large-scale purges within 90 days of an election. She added:  “If we find something that we believe is a serious violation that’s affecting a large number of people,” there’s a “strong possibility” the group will file a lawsuit.

McClellan said the state goes through “multiple steps” to ensure that legitimate voters aren’t knocked off. But, perhaps given Husted’s record as a less-than-zealous defender of voting rights, that’s doing little to ease some concerns.

“If the Secretary’s voter purge winds up deciding the election,” said Chandra, “then that will undermine Ohioans and all Americans confidence in our democracy.”