Ohio voter identification laws that came into effect in 2006 now act as obstacles for students and Ohio residents alike. However, a memorandum issued Feb. 22 by the Ohio Elections Counsel, along with new steps from Oberlin's College relations, may change the way Oberlin students vote.
The new memorandum clarifies that a college utility bill is now sufficient proof of residency to allow students to vote at the polls in Tuesday's presidential primary. The change is the result of a two-year struggle by student and statewide organizations to allow students who are not from Ohio but attend college in the state to vote at the polls.
Until last week, students were instructed by campus organizations to submit absentee ballots in order to avoid identification problems caused by House Bill 3, which requires every voter at the polls to present documentation showing an Ohio address. This may be a driver's license, a birth certificate, a bank statement, a government document, a paycheck or a utility bill. The trouble arises from the fact that almost all students receive mail at OCMR boxes, which are not considered valid addresses under Ohio law.
Ohio voter identification requirements under R.C. 3505.18 are explained in Directive 2007-06, issued April 4, 2007. They define a "utility bill" as a statement of fees owed for such services as water, sewer, natural gas, electric, heating oil, cable or satellite television, telephone, Internet and cellular phone service.
Directive 2007-06 further explains, "The utility bill must show the voter's name and current address, which must conform to the voter's name and address in the record of the board of elections...."
The new memorandum by Brian Shinn, assistant general counsel and elections counsel to Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, states: "Regardless of whether the utility bill is periodic or for a different period of time and regardless of the amount due such a utility bill constitutes sufficient voter identification under R.C. 3505.18(A)(1) and Directive 2007-06 because it verifies that an elector lives at a particular address.
"Therefore, as long as a college or university-issued utility bill is current (issued within one year prior to election day) and lists the name and address of the elector as it appears in the voter registration records of the board of elections, the utility bill may serve as proof of that elector's identity."
House Bill Three was originally enacted to stop voter fraud, a problem that College senior Colin Koffel, a consultant to the Oberlin College Democrats, said does not exist.
Koffel cited a study in which the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that "it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls." After examining the few allegations of voter fraud, the center found that most irregularities could be explained by voter mistakes or clerical errors.
The League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio looked at the 9,078,728 votes cast in Ohio's 2002 and 2004 elections, before the voter identification requirements were adopted, and found only four instances of voter fraud.
Koffel added, "Ohio's extreme voter identification requirements fallaciously pretend to protect voters -- by preventing voter fraud that never really existed in the first place -- and in fighting that illusory enemy, the law disenfranchises groups of voters like the homeless, the poor, the elderly and college students."
College first-year Anna Poe-Kest explained, "It's a really screwed-up system. In respect to college students, it's less of an issue of disenfranchisement and more of an issue of deterrence. College students make up a huge votig bloc and a lot of us just don't realize the steps you have to take if you want to vote here."
Linda Slocum, chair of the LWV's voter services in the Oberlin area, explained that the law is flawed on a number of levels: "The irony is that it encourages people to produce absentee ballots, and that's where the most fraud happens."
Another downside of absentee voting is that it has to be done weeks in advance, giving voters a chance to change their minds.
Mary Van Nortwick, a member of the Ohio Board of LWV,believes that Oberlin College can solve the problem by providing students with ID cards that list their street addresses. She noted that this was not an issue before House Bill 3 came into effect.
Both the League of Women Voters and Oberlin College encourage students to apply for absentee ballots as a way of avoiding identification problems at the polls. Absentee ballots do not require additional identification, but do ask for the last four digits of a voter's social security number. It is crucial for Oberlin students to include both an OCMR number and a street address on the application form.
The deadline to send in an application for an absentee ballot is tomorrow, Saturday, March 1 and the ballot must arrive by Tuesday, March 4.
Students who live on campus received utility bills at their OCMR boxes Saturday with a letter explaining how to vote on Election Day. Nonpartisan student volunteers will be standing outside of Oberlin's primary polling places, First Church and the public library, to answer their peers' questions on Tuesday.
Those who previously requested absentee ballots but have not sent them in will be able to vote at the polls provisionally if they choose. According to Koffel, students whose addresses have changed since the last time they registered in Ohio will still be able to vote, though their ballots may be provisional.
For the fall elections, students will have to register to vote again because their street addresses will change when they move to different dorms.
Koffel reminded his peers: "Oberlin has played integral roles in the long battles for suffrage because we understand that the franchise is essential to legitimize the integrity of our government."
© 2008 The Oberlin Review via U-WIRE