Ohio's elections chief launched a program Wednesday that will enlist the help of community and social service groups to find voters who are at risk of being removed from the state's registration rolls.
The initiative is included in an order that Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued to the 88 county election boards in Ohio, a perennial battleground state. It requires them to send his office names for a "registration reset list" he plans to share with local organizations that work closely with populations vulnerable to removal.
"I want to partner with some of these community organizations that are, in many cases, better equipped than any government office to actually go out and find people in the communities, because they are local, on-the-ground, grassroots organizations," LaRose said in an interview.
LaRose's order maintains Ohio's stringent "supplemental process" for removing voters from the rolls. Voters who have failed to participate in election activity from a given address for two years are sent a confirmation notice that triggers a four-year clock for canceling their registration.
Opponents of that process have argued unsuccessfully in court that it's illegal for the government to remove a voter from the rolls for inactivity. They contend that Ohio's rule disproportionately affects black, low-income, transient or student voters, all of whom traditionally lean Democratic.
The LaRose order provides a two-week window before inactive voters are sent "last chance notices," another voluntary extra step in the process, for their names to be shared through the outreach initiative.
"Actually, it's a good thing," said Auglaize County Election Director Michelle Wilcox, vice president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. "That's what's nice about reaching out to these organizations — you know, neighbors, groups — is they could say, 'hey, let's call the board of elections, let's get you registered, let's get you updated.'"
LaRose said he plans to share the registration reset list with the Urban League, NAACP and voting rights groups.
Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, said the supplemental process is bad policy that her organization is advocating to see replaced.
"We certainly will work with the secretary to prevent as many eligible voters as possible from getting knocked off the rolls," she said. "But, at the end of the day, we don't like the supplemental process and we hope that he will work to replace it with automatic voter registration."
LaRose argues that most registrations eventually purged from Ohio's voter rolls after not returning state confirmation notices represent duplicates or voters who have died or left the state — but he hopes his latest initiative can help find eligible Ohioans on the list who want to remain registered.
But he said just because he is legally compelled to carry out the supplemental process doesn't mean he believes it can't be improved.
"It's the right thing to do to maintain accurate voter lists," he said. "The current way that we have for doing that, just because it's been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional doesn't mean it's optimal. As I've been saying all along, it's antiquated and we want to put a better process in place."
Beyond requesting help from community groups, LaRose said he is also working with a bipartisan group of legislators on a bill that would modernize the way Ohio handles voter registration and render the supplemental process unnecessary.
He said he hopes to introduce that bill within weeks.