Ohio Legislature Advances Controversial Bill That Could Deter Students From Voting

03/26/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated Apr 01, 2015

Ohio's Republican-controlled Senate passed a transportation budget Wednesday containing a controversial provision that critics say could dissuade college students from voting.

The amendment to the budget, which was added at the last minute by a Senate committee, would require out-of-state students who register to vote from their campus address to register their cars in Ohio within 30 days and obtain state driver's licenses. Completing both of those steps would cost over $75. If the more than 116,000 out-of-state students who attend Ohio’s public and private colleges and universities fail to do so, their out-of-state licenses would become invalid and they could face misdemeanor charges.

Current law has allowed new Ohioans to claim residency and vote while keeping their out-of-state licenses and registrations because the state hasn't specified a deadline for obtaining documentation. Republicans supporting the measure said that Ohio is among only a handful of states that don't have a deadline for new residents to register cars and obtain driver's licenses in the state. However, tying the requirement to voting appears to be a unique move.

Democrats have call the legislation a "poll tax" that would intimidate and disenfranchise students. Republicans, on the other hand, say it is a nonpartisan issue of residency requirements.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) insisted Tuesday that the provision wouldn't be a burden on would-be student voters.

"By registering to vote, you are declaring you are a resident," Husted said. "We hope they become Ohioans and we hope they want to vote here."

State Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D), who has been one of the strongest voices against the amendment, said it would deter students from voting.

"There's reports that over 110,000 Ohio students could be impacted by this provision," Clyde said. "We're talking about a lot of people, a lot of people's rights impacted … I hate to see this trip up our young voters, our first-time voters, people that we want to welcome to Ohio, not put burdens up in front of them or punishing them for participating in their democracy in their communities where they're going to school."

The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, sending it to Gov. John Kasich (R). Voting rights experts say that, if Kasich signs the bill with the voting measure intact, a lawsuit challenging the provision and arguing that it violates federal voting rights laws is likely.

Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, detailed how the provision could draw a lawsuit in a blog post Wednesday. He had previously written about a similar New Hampshire law that was struck down in 2012. Chapin wrote:

Key questions in any such lawsuit will be the same ones I asked about the New Hampshire law: how many non-student voters don't have cars registered in the state or an in-state drivers' license, and is the percentage comparable to the student population? And if the law applies to all voters, what will the state do to enforce the law against all voters without in-state licenses? Additionally, what effect could this controversy have on the Secretary's efforts to push online voter registration - which requires the use of DMV data to succeed?

These efforts, and the controversies they generate, are the result of our confusing and imprecise rules for determining residency for various purposes (voting, driving, taxes, tuition etc.) in the United States. Whatever the motivation behind this Ohio push, the fact that it will have an impact on voting -- however large or small -- is going to draw litigation.

Ohio has previously been a site for election litigation: Ahead of November's midterm elections, voting rights advocates and Husted tussled over early voting days and times.

UPDATE: April 1, 1:50 p.m. -- On April 1, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) vetoed the provision linking voter registration to driver's licenses and vehicle registrations, calling the measure "potentially confusing to Ohioans and to government institutions."

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