A group of voting rights advocates submitted a petition to Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine proposing an amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would have provided for automatic voter registration in the state.
With DeWine’s approval, the proposed amendment would have appeared on the November ballot, subject to approval or rejection by Ohio’s voters.
DeWine rejected the petition.
It’s not that he had a good argument against automatic voter registration, mind you. Such an argument doesn’t really exist. Instead, DeWine argued that he couldn’t approve the petition because its language was misleading. As his office explained in a statement:
While the summary states that the amendment will register citizens “who are eligible to vote in Ohio,” the amendment text itself applies prospectively to register any person “who will be eligible to vote in the next statewide primary or general election[.]” This distinction may mislead potential signers as to who would be registered to vote as a result of the amendment.
For example, a 16-year-old who obtains a learner’s permit after this year’s primary would be eligible to vote at the next statewide primary election in 2018 so long as she would be 18 years old by November of that year. The amendment can be read to direct the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to automatically register that 16-year-old to vote.
It’s hard to find meaning in this distinction given that Ohio already allows soon-to-be-eligible voters under the age of 18 register to vote if they will be 18 by the time of the next election — in line with the proposed amendment. Put simply, the 16 year-old in Dewine’s example is already considered eligible to vote in Ohio, since they will be eligible to vote in the next statewide election. Sure, the 16 year-old isn’t eligible to vote in an election held tomorrow, but there isn’t an election being held tomorrow. Since the next actual election that will take place will occur when the voter is 18, and they will be eligible to vote in that election, it would seem as though they are covered by the phrase “eligible to vote in Ohio.”
In short, the amendment’s summary doesn’t deviate from its text in a misleading manner, given Ohio’s existing election law. It fits with DeWine’s standard that amendment summaries must be “a fair and truthful statement of the proposed amendment.”
But say, hypothetically, that this proposed amendment would go a step further and provide for pre-registration, which allows citizens to register to vote before they turn 18 — regardless as to when the next statewide election is — and adds them to the voter rolls when they reach voting age. Seven states, plus Washington, D.C., currently allow 16 year-olds to preregister, and an additional nine states allow 17 year-olds to preregister. Had the proposed amendment provided for this material change to Ohio’s election law, then DeWine would have a point when he claimed that the amendment’s full text and summary didn’t quite match.
Even if that were the case, which it isn’t, he still should have approved the petition.
Call me crazy, but I have a hard time believing that there is a significant subset of people in Ohio who would sign a petition calling for automatic voter registration for those already of voting age but would not sign a similar petition if it included preregistration for those who will soon reach voting age. That distinction is minor, at most, and people who are signing a petition in favor of automatic voter registration have already suggested that, given the choice, they’re going to err on the side of expanded ballot access.
As a policy, automatic voter registration is gaining momentum in states around the country. However, as it’s become increasingly partisan as a political issue, this means that it’s being adopted in states controlled by Democrats. Being a Republican attorney general, Mike DeWine was going to come up with whatever excuse he could in order to justify blocking the policy.
With no good arguments at his disposal, he came up with a bad one.
(Thanks to reader TF for flagging this story.)