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Ohio’s voter registration purge targeted thousands in error. Now, a call for change.

This story was originally published by USA Today. 

ASHLAND, Ohio — A week before Election Day 2016, Bill Gedraitis drove into town to cast an early vote that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency.

A little more than two years later, Gedraitis’ name disappeared from the rolls, a victim of the state’s 2019 voter purges that removed more than 460,000 registrations, many of them for inactivity.

But Gedraitis wasn’t an inactive voter. His name was among thousands erroneously targeted for removal last year under a fractured system in which each of Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections handles its own voter-registration records. It’s a system that the state’s elections chief called “antiquated and inefficient.”

 

It’s time to reform that system, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a recent interview in which reporters for the USA TODAY Network and The Columbus Dispatch presented their most recent findings in an ongoing investigation of Ohio’s 2019 purges. He said he wants to bring it under state control and restore trust in the process.

“The system we have in place right now is prone to error — human error, vendor error,” LaRose said. “It’s unacceptably messy.”

 

Ohio’s experience shows how just one software glitch, like the one that canceled Gedraitis’ registration, could remove hundreds or thousands of eligible voters from the rolls.

In the runup to the pivotal 2020 election, controversies emerged over purges in other high-stakes states where some fear a few thousand ballots could flip the vote. Georgia removed 300,000 registrations last year. Wisconsin is locked in a court battle over whether it must strip 200,000 names. 

Across the nation, states canceled some 17.3 million registrations between the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

 

Critics, especially on the left, say those removals are a means of voter suppression and have filed lawsuits to stop them. One suit, filed in 2016, put Ohio’s purges on hold while it made its way through the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that case in mid-2018. It narrowly upheld the 1995 Ohio law that tells county boards of elections to chop the registrations of “inactive voters,” those who haven’t cast a ballot for six years and who have not responded to a mailer to update their registration.

Ohio resumed its purges 0n January 11, 2019, when counties removed about 267,000 registrations from the rolls.

 

LaRose, a Republican, was sworn in the next day. A second purge was planned for September. But LaRose made a crucial change: For the first time, counties had to submit names of voters they planned to cut, which his office then compiled into a single statewide “last-chance” list.

Working from that centralized list last summer, The Dispatch identified more than 1,600 active voters who were incorrectly notified that their registrations were about to be purged for inactivity. Some had cast ballots as recently as 2018.

Elections officials blamed a voter-registration-software vendor’s error.

 

In Columbus, Franklin County elections officials identified about 1,100 others who were flagged for removal for inactivity, even though they had signed petitions. That also counts as voter activity.

Increased attention prompted thousands of other voters to contact elections boards or the secretary of state’s office to update their registrations. Of about 235,000 registrations on the state’s last-chance list for September, 194,000 were actually purged.

 

No one had checked Ohio’s previous voter purges, until now

Even with those discoveries, LaRose’s office did not move to check whether similar errors had occurred in January. So reporters for the USA TODAY Network and The Dispatch set out to review that purge.

Last January, Gedraitis was one of at least 17 active voters in five counties who were incorrectly removed as inactive, reporters found.

 “I think it’s OK to clean up the voter rolls, but look at me,” said Gedraitis, a union carpenter who displays a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to the entrance to his cabin in Loudonville.

“I voted and I’m getting pushed out.”

Gedraitis, who has not tried to vote since 2016, was never turned away at the polls.

LaRose said he instructed county boards to immediately reinstate 15 voters who were incorrectly removed. Several county boards had already moved to do that after reporters contacted them.

 

That included Gedraitis and eight other voters in Ashland County, roughly halfway between Cleveland and Columbus. In northwest Ohio, Wood County had removed two voters who had cast ballots as recently as 2017. In Butler County just outside Cincinnati, a man who had regularly cast ballots was returned to rolls. There were three in Henry County, southwest of Toledo.

In Toledo, a Lucas County official said he could not determine why two voters identified there were removed because the board had changed voter-registration software vendors. It was unclear whether the county would reinstate them.

In Columbus, the Franklin County Board of Elections had reviewed its January purge after discovering that it had incorrectly flagged about 1,100 voters for removal in September. When reporters began their statewide review of the January removals, Franklin had already reinstated another 123 voters it improperly removed in January.

 

Ohio’s voter registration system is prone to error

There could be more errors. Inconsistent record keeping and inaccurate voter-registration software make it difficult to check whether purges were conducted correctly.

In Shelby County, in western Ohio, the elections board told state officials they’d removed 845 voters in January. But the list provided to reporters had just 210 voters on it. The elections board director said Shelby County switched voter registration software vendors in July and the new vendor could not reconstruct the full list.

Reporters also found 12 voters who county boards marked as removed for inactivity, but who had been removed for other reasons. Some had died, LaRose’s office said. Several were removed under a separate set of rules for those who cast provisional ballots.

When reporters asked for records of voters removed in January, several counties initially provided lists of voters who had nothing to do with the request. They’d misinterpreted their software vendor’s instructions for producing the list.

County-by-county voter registration in Ohio leads to a “mess” of inconsistent data, LaRose said, and should instead be handled by the state.

“If I’m going to be held accountable for this, I want to make sure that it’s operating at the level of accuracy and efficiency that I would expect,” he said. “It’s currently not doing that, and we need to make a change.”

 

Who is purged?

Reporters also tested the warnings of purge opponents: That targeting inactive voters — even when it’s done according to the law — disproportionately kicks young, Democratic and African-American voters off the rolls. 

 

The young were disproportionately purged: Nearly 1 out of 3 purged voters was age 25 to 34.

And where a party preference could be determined based on the last partisan primary in which the voter cast a ballot, Democrats outnumbered Republicans almost 2 to 1.

Race is not included in voter-registration records. But an analysis of the racial makeup of those purged in January 2019 that determined each voter’s likely race using census data connected to the voter’s surname and address estimated that 11.9% of those purged were black. That roughly matches Ohio’s population makeup.

 

The Supreme Court said Ohio could keep purging inactive voters, but lawsuit led to a safety net

Voting rights activists lost their lawsuit to stop Ohio from canceling registrations for inactivity.

But they secured a smaller victory: Under what’s called the APRI exception, purged voters can cast a valid provisional ballot if they appear at a polling place in the county where they had been registered.

A lower court had ruled in 2016 that those purged for inactivity should be allowed to vote in that election on a provisional ballot. A settlement in August between the A. Philip Randolph Institute, or APRI, and LaRose’s office extended that exception until the end of 2022 and expanded it to voters purged in previous years.

A provisional ballot is given to voters who appear at the polls, but who are not in the precinct’s poll book or can’t prove their identity. Election officials examine the ballot later to determine whether the vote should count.

In November, during a low-turnout municipal and school-board election, dozens of voters whose registrations had been canceled cast provisional ballots that counted. That included 38 voters in Cuyahoga County, 24 voters in Franklin County, 13 in Summit County and nine in Hamilton County. It was the first test of the expanded APRI exception.

Jennifer F. A. Borresen

Hilliard resident Jim Buxton was one of those voters.

Buxton said he moved to central Ohio in 1996, and voting records back to 2000 show he never had cast a ballot. Franklin County canceled his registration in January for inactivity. But in November, a school issue in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard drew Buxton to the Methodist church that doubles as his polling place.

“There’s obviously pros and cons depending on what side you’re on,” Buxton said of canceling voter registrations. “I guess the biggest problem would be if that had prevented me from voting that night.”

Ideally, said Andre Washington, the president for APRI in Ohio, no one would be removed from the voter rolls because they chose not to vote. Like Buxton, they might be waiting for an issue that moves them. But he’s proud of the settlement his group reached with LaRose.

“My position is, if we are able to allow one person in the state of Ohio to cast a ballot who had been legally purged, we have done our job,” Washington said.

To ensure purged voters don’t walk out when presented with a provisional ballot, Washington wants to train poll workers to explain why their vote might count after all.

The APRI exception is an imperfect remedy for wrongly purged voters, said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. Provisional ballots take more time for workers to administer and verify, and Miller said voters don’t trust them.

“There are times when voters are afraid their vote won’t count if they have to vote provisionally,” Miller said. “So they just leave.”

Cleaning up Ohio’s voter registration mess

When your registration has been canceled, it’s personal. Gedraitis initially wondered whether his support for Trump in 2016 put a target on his registration.

An error in a computer program incorrectly knocked Gedraitis and eight other county voters from the rolls, said Shannon Johnson, director of the Ashland County Board of Elections. The program was provided by Elections Systems & Software, the county’s former registration vendor.

After the September purge, in which ES&S was blamed for improperly flagging more than 1,600 registrations across 14 counties for removal, Ashland County changed vendors. It went instead with Triad, which serves the majority of Ohio counties.

Instead of each county purging its own rolls with little state oversight, Johnson, a Democrat and past president of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials, said she prefers a statewide system in which everyone follows the same rules.

“The instructions would be very specific and maybe this would all be much simpler,” she said.

Miller said the state needs to review past purges to correct mistakes and modernize its voter registration system.

“There’s not enough transparency into these practices for us to know how accurate the systems are and where all the failures are,” Miller said. “I think that lack of transparency is dangerous.”

The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would provide more state oversight of voter registration vendors such as Triad and ES&S. Another would automatically update voter registrations when people interact with state agencies, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Here’s where Ohio’s voter-registration legislation stands

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Lawmakers in 13 states passed laws to change the way they purge voters in the last two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Those new laws include provisions in Georgia to transfer voter registrations for those who move to another county within the state; in Michigan to place inactive voters in a separate file while keeping their eligibility to cast ballots; and in Tennessee to require county election commissions to verify voter addresses every two years.

The Ohio bills aim to reduce the margin of error in purging voters from the rolls. But Miller, at the League of Women Voters, said a reduction is not enough.

“There’s no acceptable margin of error,” Miller said. “Any eligible Ohioan who is wrongfully removed from the rolls is one too many.”