Ohio Voter Caging in Play Despite Directive

A change in the law may be needed to protect Ohioans from voter caging.
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A change in the law may be needed to protect Ohioans from voter caging.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner on Monday called on state legislative leaders to act quickly before Election Day to amend a two-year-old voter challenge statute set to expire at year's end because, she said, it's unconstitutional.

On Friday, Brunner clarified the law in a formal directive, calling on election officials to prohibit the use of returned mail —including a state-sponsored 60-day election notice sent out Friday — as the sole basis for canceling a voter's registration.

But the returned mailers, and others like them, can still be used in part by partisans to challenge a voter's eligibility — known as voter caging — along with other factors, Ohio spokesman Kevin Kidder said.

In 2004, Republicans challenged 36,000 Ohio voters based on returned mail and 77,000 voters from 2004 to 2007 nationwide. Voter rights advocates are watching for similar mailers in other states that may be going out this month to set the stage for a repeat performance.

The other aspect of Brunner's Friday directive restored due process to the voter challenge rules. Current law allows election boards to cancel voter registrations as a result of partisan challenges without first notifying voters or offering a chance to contest the cancellation before an election judge. Instead, Brunner directed county election boards, each composed of four bi-partisan members, to do so.

Since 2005, these same concerns were voiced repeatedly by voting rights groups in Ohio when the law passed. At the time, the Ohio secretary of State was Republican Kenneth Blackwell; Brunner, a Democrat, took office in January 2007.

Attorneys for the nonprofit Advancement Project, which works closely on election integrity in Ohio, contend that Brunner didn't go far enough. While the group commends her effort to restore due process, they called on her to prohibit partisan challenges — known as voter caging — altogether.

"She should have directed counties that challenges based on returned mail should be denied on their face," according to the group's press release.

In response, Kidder said that Brunner stands by her directive. "She's made an honest effort to address these concerns. She's provided due process to protect the voters of Ohio," he said.