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Ohio Senate approves DATA Act standardizing elections information statewide




Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The Ohio Senate has approved a bill overhauling how county boards collect and maintain voter data. The vote comes one day after the proposal passed committee, and without any of a handful of changes proposed by interested parties.

The proposal, known as the DATA Act, grew out of a report commissioned by the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute. The think tank criticized record keeping in numerous jurisdictions, in part, because they updated it too regularly.

“While this may be with the best intentions by election officials to maintain updated voter rolls,” AFPI argued, continually overwriting the voter rolls violates federal law “which mandates election data must be retained and preserved for 22 months after all federal elections.”

The report claims there were discrepancies in 2020 between the number of voters and the number of ballots cast in the Ohio counties. AFPI then attempted to apply those disparities across the map to suggest 2020 election data in Ohio could be off by about a quarter million votes.

A review of the three county’s records and the Secretary of State’s data, however, reveal no such discrepancies.

Questioning the intent

The Senate proposal aims to clean up election data by standardizing information. But while Ohio’s Secretary of State has championed the bill, Frank LaRose has also taken recent steps that would tend to undermine the state’s election data.

In Tuesday’s committee hearing, Columbus Democratic Senator Bill DeMora tried to address that.

“The amendment is fairly simple,” he said, “it is to have Ohio re-enter the ERIC collaborative that transmits voter information between states.”

The nonpartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, operates as a voter information clearing house for the states who participate. The organization compares data across states to spot potential changes — for instance, if a voter moves without changing their registration.

But the group has lately become the target of conservatives skeptical of how it uses that information. Among other complaints, they criticize the organization for sharing data with the Center for Election Innovation and Research which gave grants — so-called “Zuckerbucks” — to underfunded election administrators.

In March, LaRose announced he was pulling Ohio out of the multi-state compact. In his letter, the secretary argued states should be able to share information ‘al a carte.’

“I fundamentally believe that every dues-paying ERIC member should have the right to use these services in the best interest of their own state and its taxpayers,” LaRose contended.

But without some alternative, Ohio and the six other Republican-led states to exit have fewer tools to ensure election integrity.

DeMora argued LaRose’s decision has to do with “other ambitions” — an allusion to the Secretary’s likely challenge of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2024.

“For what little voter fraud there actually is,” DeMora said of ERIC, “this actually catches those people that move between states.”

But the committee voted along party lines to set aside his amendment.

DATA Act quibbles

In addition to DeMora’s concerns, a handful of organizations raised a few of their own. The organization All Voting Is Local raised doubts about the effort in light of the state’s ERIC exit.

“We must be clear,” the group wrote, “no proven alternative to ERIC currently exists, and Ohio would be foolish to use this new bill as an excuse to attempt to recreate the wheel and replace ERIC with an alternative system.”

Another organization, Secure Democracy USA, argued the bill should provide funding for boards.

Both groups also flagged problems related to the secretary’s regular “voter roll maintenance” which includes removing inactive voters. They argued the bill should include rejected ballots when determining a voter’s last activity date.

“Otherwise eligible voters should not be considered “inactive” after attempting in good faith to cast a ballot that ultimately could not be counted,” Secure Democracy USA wrote.

The bill’s sponsor Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, disputed that characterization, arguing her bill does nothing to change the definition of voter activity. The measure instead directs the secretary to set those guidelines in rule.

Aaron Ockerman, speaking on behalf of county elections boards, offered a handful of what he termed “technical” changes.

He argued setting voters’ registration date by postmark only makes sense around the registration deadline. Doing so when there’s no question about an application’s timeliness will complicate filing unnecessarily. On privacy grounds, he suggested state websites only share a voter’s birth year, rather than their full birth date.

Time certain

In an echo of the ‘discrepancies’ highlighted by AFPI, Ockerman also questioned requiring boards submit daily “snapshots” at 4:00 pm. Many boards, he argued, continue operating well into the evening.

“It’s going to create inconsistencies,” he explained. “If someone’s looking at that information they’re going to see that our voter registration database will look different at the state level on a certain day than it did at a local level. And that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid with this bill.”

The committee didn’t take Ockerman up on any of his proposed changes. The members voted to advance the proposal along party lines.

Speaking after the hearing, Gavarone explained she’d heard arguments before about whether or not to use postmark for registration date. But she argued it was better to remain “consistent.”

As for the how much of a voters birthdate to share and the 4:00 pm deadline, Gavarone said those arguments were new to her, and she’d be willing to discuss them more with Ockerman. Still, she expressed reticence about abandoning a concrete deadline.

“The great thing about this bill is it’s going to make everything (the) same throughout the state and a four o’clock time deadline is very certain,” she explained. “I would certainly not want to make any changes without doing a thorough examination as to the pros and cons of changing a time certain to an open-ended time.”

In the end, none of the changes proposed by Ockerman and others made it into the proposal.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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