Why Did Franklin County Reject So Many Voter Registrations?

Nov 4, 2016

Every election year in Ohio, hundreds of thousands of people register to vote in their counties. Thousands more change addresses or other information about their registrations.

But in Franklin County, data provided by a new ProPublica tool showed that officials here rejected voter registrations in 2012 at a rate almost three times the state average: 18.2 percent of registrations in Franklin were rejected or marked as problems, versus only 7 percent for the state as a whole.

There are other counties in the country with high registration rejection rates, but not many. Jefferson Parish, which is part of the New Orleans Metropolitan Area in Louisiana, had a 20.33 percent rate. Sacramento, California, was at 32.68 percent. New York City, on the other hand, was lower, at 17 percent.

Is there one reason why Franklin County's rejection percentage is such an outlier?

"If there was, we would figure out a way to fix it," says Beth Fulton, a voter services clerk at the Franklin County Board of Elections.

Incomplete

Franklin County has a lot of registered voters - 843,261, according to the latest count by the BOE. That's the second highest in the state. 

If someone's voter registration form wasn't approved on the first try, there are a few probable reasons why.

"Voter registrations are usually rejected if they're missing the pertinent information that's required by the Secretary of State," says BOE voter services clerk Nikki Campbell. "That could be a birth date, ID or their signature." 

As of October 7, Franklin County received 75,272 new voter registrations in 2016. Complete information on how many were accepted or rejected were not yet available, though, which is why this article uses data from 2012.

According to a tally of rejected voter registrations provided by the Franklin County BOE, the number one reason was for missing or mismatched ID - meaning driver's license or Social Security number. Not verifying your age or U.S. citizenship might also get you a returned application. 

"The voter does have a responsibility to give us the correct information," says Aaron Sellers, public information officer for the Franklin County BOE. "We want as many people registered and voting as possible."

In Ohio, only Van Wert and Butler Counties had a greater rejection rate - 50.3 and 39.9 percent, respectively. Jocelyn Bicarro of the Butler County BOE  disputes how high that number is, but also argues that it's not because of the county's actions.

"Jobs and Family Services – it’s an agency covered under the National Voter Registration Act – they’re not required to check the forms for completion, it’s not part of what’s covered under the law," Bicarro says. "So we do tend to get a number of incomplete forms from voters completing them at that particular agency."

Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst at Common Cause Ohio - which advocates for voter rights - admitted user error does play a big role.

"One of the things that of course we didn’t really hit on as a problem for voter registration is really bad penmanship," Turcer says, chuckling. "If you can imagine what can happen, is sometimes you get forms and you simply cannot actually read them."

And if the penmanship is bad, the information going into the system might be too. 

Thinking Locally

But bad writing alone wouldn't account for such large differences between counties.

Franklin County BOE director Ed Leonard had other suggestions.

“Being a more urban, growing county, we probably tend to get more voter registration drives going on," Leonard says. "The fact that we have a lot of college students and a lot of universities here, we probably do get a lot more registration drives that may increase the number of registrations we get and therefore increase on a proportional basis... the number of  registrations that may not be acceptable for one reason or another.”

Ohio State is the largest college in Ohio, but Franklin is not the only county with a lot of college students. Athens, home to Ohio University, has a rejection rate of 5.5 percent. Summit County was high, at 12.6 percent, but still quite below Franklin's.

Turcer says this line of reasoning raised its own questions.

"The student explanation is a little worrisome, because of course students should be permitted to vote where they choose," Turcer says. "They can vote at home or they can vote at their location where they live in Columbus."

Fulton, the clerk, agrees that Columbus's growth and transient population might have more to do with its contrast to the rest of Ohio.

“We’re surrounded by a lot more counties than, like, Cuyahoga County," Fulton says. "We have people moving in and out of counties, in and out."

If you look at other fast-growing cities around the country though, few compare to Franklin in this regard.

Travis County in Texas, which is home to Austin, rejected only 3.5 percent of registrations. Wake County, North Carolina, home to Raleigh, rejected 3.8 percent. And both states had rejection averages lower than Ohio's.

Keeping Consistent

"We are bound by the Secretary of State's guidelines for how voter registration forms are processed and the steps we take to verify whether or not we can accept a registration and put it into the database," says Leonard.

But Mike Brickner of the ACLU Ohio says that can't be completely true.

"I think no matter what kind of good policies you have that are trying to move toward that uniformity, there will always be some differences in implementation in how different local election officials interpret those policies," he says.

So what's the solution? How can Franklin County get those registration rejection rates down to a more normal level? 

One fix that both Brickner and Turcer agreed on was online voter registration. Ohio's legislature passed a measure this year, which Governor John Kasich signed. That will allow people across the state to register online beginning in January 2017, but not in time for this election.

"That's actually a really great tool that could help some of these problems," Brickner says. 

When people type in their own voter information online, problems with legibility mostly go away. It removes one layer of potential human error. It also makes voter registration a lot more convenient and quick.

"I think the idea behind it is not just to make online voter registration available for people on your own computer or your tablet or whatever, but really to use online voter registration as a portal for low income people and for people who are traditionally disenfranchised," Brickner says.

After all, for elections officials, making sure everyone can vote should be the goal.