Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Thursday, October 13
Ohio: No Fault Absentee ... If You've Got ID
A committee of the Ohio Senate has approved a bill that would liberalize absentee voting, while requiring voters to provide identifying information at the time they apply for their absentee ballots. The AP has this report and the bill (H.B. 234) may be found here. The Senate's State and Local Government and Veterans Affairs Committee recommended the bill by a 6-3 vote, over Democratic objections. If enacted, voters would no longer be required to provide an excuse -- such as disability, religious holiday, or incarceration -- to vote absentee. Voters would, however, be required to provide their drivers' license number, last four digits of their Social Security number, a photo ID, a utility bill, or some other document showing their name and address. In other words, all absentee voters would be required to show "HAVA ID" (i.e., the forms of identification allowed by HAVA). This goes beyond HAVA, which requires such identifying information only of first-time voters who registered by mail.

My take: The identification required by the Ohio bill is less onerous than that contained in recent laws enacted in Georgia and Indiana, which require that voters show photo identification in order to have their votes counted. At the same time, it's not at all clear that Ohio's proposed requirement will do much to decrease fraud. I do think that absentee voting is the part of our election system that's most susceptible to fraud. That's because it's the one place where the anonymity of the vote may be compromised. With mail-in absentee ballots, it's possible for someone to pay me to vote a certain way. This isn't possible with in-precinct voting, since the privacy of the voting booth prevents anyone else from verifying how I've voted -- thus making it practically impossible to buy and sell votes.

Absentee voting is therefore vulnerable to fraud in a way that in-precinct voting isn't. The problem is that an ID requirement won't do anything to stop this form of fraud with mail-in ballots. Someone can still obtain an absentee ballot, and then receive payment in order to cast his or her vote a certain way. Does this often happen? Probably not. The point is not that fraud is common, but that the Ohio bill isn't properly targeted at the risks that do exist with absentee voting.

Rather than going to no-fault absentee -- with or without an ID requirement -- the state would be much better off going to in-person early voting. This makes voting more convenient for those who can't or don't want to appear at the polls on election day. At the same time, because the ballot remains secret, it avoids the risk of fraud inherent in mail-in absentee voting. A side-benefit is that it helps prevent unintentional undervotes and other mistakes, which tend to be more common with mail-in voting. True, in-person early voting is more expensive than mail-in absentee voting. But isn't it worth it to promote a system that, in the words of HAVA's co-sponsor, makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat?

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Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University