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Tue, 28 Sep 2004

Bureaucrats for Disenfranchisement

The blogosphere is up in arms about Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell’s recent decision to require Ohio Boards of Election to reject voter registration forms that aren’t printed on 80 lb card stock.

This article in the Dayton Daily News describes the issue more fully. (Registration is annoying and required, and “email a link” is broken, so I’m in-lining it here:)

Blackwell rulings rile voting advocates
Boards of elections told to strictly follow two provisions
By Jim Bebbington and Laura Bischoff
Dayton Daily News (24 Sept 2004)

DAYTON Voters-rights advocates are criticizing two recent decisions by Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell that they say will unfairly limit some people’s ability to vote Nov. 2.

Blackwell’s office has told county boards of elections to follow strictly two provisions in Ohio election law:

  • One requires Ohio voter registration cards be printed on thick, 80-pound stock paper.
  • The other ordered boards to strictly interpret the rules regarding provisional ballots, the ones cast by voters who move before the election but are still registered in Ohio.

The paper-stock issue is frustrating Montgomery County Board of Elections officials, who have a backlog of registrations to complete. If they get an Ohio voter registration card on paper thinner than required, they are mailing a new card out to the voter. But if they still have the backlog by the registration deadline, Oct. 4, voters will not have another chance to get their correct paperwork in, said Steve Harsman, deputy director of the Montgomery County board.

“There is just no reason to use 80-pound paper,” Harsman said.

In Montgomery County there is a backlog of around 4,000 registrations, Harsman said. A few hundred could be affected by this provision, he said.

Cuyahoga County board of elections officials are ignoring the edict because they have already had an avalanche of new registrations submitted on forms printed on newsprint in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

“We don’t have a micrometer at each desk to check the weight of the paper,” said Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board.

Blackwell’s office has given the Cuyahoga board a special dispensation to accept the newsprint registration forms. The requirement is because the forms are designed to be mailed like post-cards and must be thick enough to survive mechanical sorters at the U.S. Post Office, according to Blackwell’s spokesman Carlo LoParo.

“Our directive stands and it is specifically in place to protect new registrants to make sure the forms are not destroyed,” LoParo said.

Confusing the matter further is a national registration form available off the Internet at the federal Elections Assistance Agency. That form must be accepted by Ohio boards regardless of what it is printed on, Blackwell has said.

The heavy-weight paper was a requirement when the cards were kept for years, were used to keep track of when a person voted, and were the main way to check signatures to combat voter fraud and verify petitions. But many boards, including both Montgomery and Cuyahoga, scan the signatures into a computer database and no longer record voting history on the cards.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio on Thursday called on Blackwell to clarify his position. League national president Kay Maxwell said she knows of no other states that are requiring the 80-pound paper stock for voter registration cards. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” she said on Thursday in Columbus.

The other directive forbids poll workers from giving a provisional ballot unless the person can prove they live in that precinct. Peg Rosenfield, spokeswoman for the league, said she interprets federal to be less restrictive. Rosenfield says people who show up at the wrong precinct should be given a ballot and allowed to vote on the non-local races.

Contact Jim Bebbington at 225-2262.

I called Mr. Blackwell’s office this morning (614-466-3910) since all of the registration forms I have ever handed out have been downloaded off of Lorain County Board of Elections web site and printed off my laser printer onto regular (20 lb) paper. I asked the person who picked up the phone if these registrations would be valid. She was unwilling to make a statement about the policy but asked if I would “like to be called back with the message”. She took my name and phone number. No call back yet. I also tried calling the Lorain County BoE (440-326-5900, 440-326-5901) for clarification but I got dumped to voice mail. I will try calling them again.

The 80 lb card stock requirement is from the days when the cards themselves were the archival record. Given how registration is processed today, it is hard to view Mr. Blackwell’s sudden enforcement of this rule in a charitable light. I’m also perturbed by the fact that our Board of Election’s voter registration web page no longer seems to have a .pdf file of the voter registration form available; I’m really pretty sure that’s where I downloaded the pdf I have.

It’s difficult not to view this as a back-handed effort to roll back some of the gains that Democrats have made in registering new voters in Ohio this year as described in this New York Times story.

Having Boards of Election mail out new, blank 80 lb forms to people who sent in regular paper forms under the reasoning that regular paper forms can be damaged in the mail—even though the forms in question have already safely traversed the mail, using a high-tech device known as an “envelope”—makes no sense whatsoever. 80 lb forms are no longer kept by the Boards. So why is Mr. Blackwell doing this if not to disenfranchise new voters?

Atrios has posted an excerpt from Section 1971 of the Federal Voting Rights Act . Mr. Blackwell’s enforcement of the Ohio law certainly appears to contradict the Federal law.