This topic is monitored by Moritz Law Professor Terri L. Enns
Penalties for Voter Registration Fraud in Ohio
In Ohio, as in other parts of the country, various kinds of impropriety surrounding voter registration are being alleged. Improperly purged registration lists, refusal to register college students at their college residences, forged signatures on registration cards, attempts to register deceased citizens, and refusal to register felons who are eligible to vote are among the charges in various parts of the country. Additionally, attempting to prevent or hinder eligible voters from exercising the franchise, depending on the facts, is subject to punishment as a form of voter intimidation.
In Ohio, allegations of registration fraud have arisen in Franklin, Lake, Mahoning, and Summit counties, among others. The largest investigation focuses on over 800 voter registration cards received in Summit County. 1 Problems with the cards include addresses that do not exist and handwriting that appears to be similar on multiple registration forms. Both the Summit County Sheriff's Office and the Ohio Attorney General's office are investigating.
Ohio Revised Code 3599.11 governs false voter registration. Illegal activities include:
- attempting to register or registering in a precinct in which the person does not live;
- knowingly impersonating another or assuming the name of another, real or false, in attempting to register or registering;
- registering under more than one name; or,
- knowingly making any false statement on any registration form.
A violation of this section of the Code is a felony of the fifth degree, punishable by a mandatory prison term of six to twelve months and an optional fine of not more than $2,000 for each count.
While election fraud is a serious matter, the efforts to prevent such fraud must be undertaken in a way that does not unduly intimidate or otherwise hinder honest citizens from legitimately exercising their voting rights. There is a fear that sometimes heavy-handed tactics are used to investigate alleged instances of fraud, and the debates in Congress concerning the enactment of HAVA underscore the differences of opinion that exist on how best to balance the sometimes competing interests in deterring voter fraud and facilitating voter participation.
In Ohio, we have recently seen suggestions that the record levels of new voter registration submissions have involved some fraudulent registrations. For example, in Franklin County, there are apparently more registered voters than the census would indicate possible – although the county's board of election says that the discrepancy is not evidence of fraud and is best explained by the fact that the board will not remove until after this year's election names of those who have since moved or died . As investigations of alleged instances of fraud are conducted in Ohio (and elsewhere), it will be important to monitor the extent to which these investigations are pursuing credible and serious allegations and whether they are conducted with sensitivity to the interest in protecting voting rights. At the same time, no serious allegations of fraud should go uninvestigated because of over-sensitivity to the fear of discouraging legitimate voter participation. While maintaining the balance between these two competing considerations is often difficult, it nonetheless is necessary.
1. Jim Carney, "Ohio attorney general joins Summit inquiry." Akron Beacon Journal, September 23, 2004, A1.