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Secretary Of State Candidates Come Together On Expanding Voter Registration

Former state Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Portage County
Nick Evans
Democratic secretary of state candidate Kathleen Clyde.

Ohio’s secretary of state keeps track of business filings and campaign finance records. But that office is best known for its role as the state’s elections chief – and it’s one of the five statewide executive offices that will have a new occupant in January.

One of the highest-profile duties of the secretary of state’s office was on trial this year. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s six-year voter roll maintenance process: voters are removed if they don’t vote or respond to Board of Elections mailings after six years.

State Rep. Kathleen Clyde repeatedly spoke out against the process, which she and other critics call “voter purging.” Clyde, now the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, notes the court’s decision left voter roll upkeep to the states. She says if she wins, on day one she would change what she calls the strictest removal process in the country.

“So I kind of wanted to dial that back… with a healthy balance of maintaining the rolls but also making sure elections are accessible and that we're not purging eligible voters,” Clyde says. “One way we could do this is move Ohio towards automatic voter registration. Then government and cities are doing the work behind the scenes registering everyone and keeping the rolls up to date.”

Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose had supported the process in the past, and said the Supreme Court ruling will allow the Secretary of State to maintain accurate voter rolls while still being fair to voters. Now, he says he’ll make some changes – and one idea sounds remarkably similar to Clyde’s.

“What I'm working on right now is a series of steps that would bring more automated voter registration type processes to the state of Ohio,” LaRose says. “So when people are interacting with state government, which is for most of us at least once a year, whether it's paying your taxes, renewing your driver's license, getting your fishing license whatever it may be... let's take that opportunity to update their address or to register them to vote if they're not already registered.”

Clyde’s automatic voter registration system would sign up everyone unless they opt out, while LaRose says he’d prefer it to be voluntary.

This year, current Secretary of State Jon Husted announced voter registration will be updated when a driver’s license or auto tags are renewed, but it’s unclear whether databases in different state agencies could share information.

Whoever wins will have to manage the state’s next big voter project: replacing thousands of voting machines that are a dozen or more years old. The state set aside more than $114 million to get new machines in place by the 2020 presidential election, but didn’t specify what machines counties must buy.

LaRose says that’s appropriate, because the bipartisan Boards of Elections should make those choices.

“At a time when it feels like Republicans and Democrats can't agree on what day of the week it is, every county in Ohio has a bipartisan success story,” LaRose says. “It is your County Board of Elections, where every morning by design Republicans and Democrats arrive at work and work together to run elections. Those are the people that should make the decisions about what kind of voting machines they want to buy, not us sitting in Columbus and dictating it to them.”

Around half of Ohio’s counties have electronic voting machines and the rest use machines that scan paper ballots, but both have voter verified paper audit trails. Clyde says more voting machine security is needed, so she’d issue a directive to counties on which machines she wants in her overall cybersecurity plan.

“There would still be a choice,” Clyde says. “And we also have to make sure that we are considering accessibility issues which touch screen machines, help some voters with disabilities vote independently. So there's tweaks that we can make. But yes, the safest, most secure voting system is a paper ballot system.”

On campaign finance reform, the two candidates agree. Clyde says she’d support LaRose’s plan to require local candidates to file electronic forms that are more easily searchable. And LaRose says Clyde’s proposal to require more disclosure of donors of so-called “dark money” would help with overall transparency.

On the business side of the office, both say they want to change some regulations and streamline the business filing process. Clyde says she also wants to waive business setup fees for veterans, and LaRose – a veteran himself – says he wants to look into creating special court dockets to settle business disputes.