Saturday, November 08, 2008

An Open Letter On Election Reform In Ohio

Dear Representative Mallory and Senator Kearney:

After the 2004 election, the Ohio legislature undertook significant reforms of its electoral process. While the 2008 election passed without the controversy of four years ago, there is still much fine-tuning to be done. With a Democratic majority in the State House and a Democratic governor, the time for further reform is sooner rather than later. Here are my respectful suggestions:

  • In implementing the requirements of the Help America Vote Act, remember that Congress's intent was that the statute be a shield to protect the right of citizens to vote. This year, the GOP sought to use it as a bludgeon to disenfranchise certain voters, and those efforts must be rebuffed.

  • The new system of "no-fault" absentee voting was a step in the right direction. Now is the time to complete the tranformation, and adopt what others states refer to as "early voting." A true early-voting sytem should require that counties open additional polling places in the fortnight (or longer) prior to Election Day. Moreover, early voting would entail the same identification verification required on Election Day. It is incongruous and incomprehensible that a voter walking into a precinct on Election Day is required to produce valid ID, while a voter who goes to the Board of Elections one day earlier need not do so. Such a compromise (easier access to the ballot prior to Election Day, but with greater safeguards) would likely be met with bipartisan support.

  • Eliminate Ohio's antiquated precinct-based voting system. In other states (Florida is one example), during the early-voting period, voters were permitted to visit any polling place throughout the state to cast a ballot. Once they reached the polling place, their driver's licenses were swiped through a magnetic card reader (our current licenses have this feature available should the legislature choose to make it useful), and their ballot was printed from laser printers in the polling place (since local issues would still vary even, in some cases, precinct-by-precinct). As you know, under current Ohio law, a voter could cast a ballot at the proper polling place but at the wrong precinct (in other words, the right building, but the wrong table), and his or her ballot would be discarded. In our technologically-driven era, there is no justification for such a requirement.

  • Standardize Ohio's voting mechanism. Ohio made a mistake in permitting each county to determine whether to adopt optical-scan ballots or direct-recording electronic machines (DRE's). Instead, all counties should be required to use optical-scan ballots (paper ballots that are filled out by voters and then scanned into a computer in the polling place). The advantages of optical-scan ballots are two-fold. First, voters have more confidence in a paper ballot. Given Secretary Brunner's report on DRE's, this sentiment may have some justification. (Regardless of whether such confidence is justified, the importance of the public's confidence in a clean election cannot be overstated.) Second, voting by optical-scan ballots is more conducive to high-turnout elections. With paper ballots, the number of voters who can vote at once is limited only by the space and number of pens in a polling place. The old-fashioned stand-up "booths" are not even required, as tables with privacy screens can be set up, or clipboards can be handed to voters. Because of the cost of DRE equipment, most precincts will have just a few machines. While alternative paper ballots are available, they are brought out only if a particular voter asks for them or if poll workers decide, in their own judgment, to bring them out. And voters may be wary about casting a ballot in a different manner than the standard method for the precinct. Thus, optical-scan ballots provide the most secure, most time-efficient manner of voting and should be mandated state-wide.
The new composition of the Ohio House provides an excellent opportunity for progressive legislation. There can be no more important issue for progressives than safeguarding the right of every citizen's voice to be heard and vote to count. I hope that you will act on these measures early in the next legislative session.

Sincerely,

Donald R. Caster
A constituent with too much time on his hands on a Saturday afternoon

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