Ohio Republicans Push Law To Penalize Colleges For Helping Students Vote

May 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Republicans in the Ohio Legislature are pushing a plan that could cost the state’s public universities millions of dollars if they provide students with documents to help them register to vote. Backers of the bill describe it as intended to resolve discrepancies between residency requirements for tuition and voter registration, while Democrats and other opponents argue it is a blatant attempt at voter suppression in a crucial swing state.

“What the bill would do is penalize public universities for providing their students with the documents they need to vote,” Daniel Tokaji, a professor and election law expert at Ohio State University told TPM. “It’s a transparent effort at vote suppression — about the most blatant and shameful we’ve seen in this state, which is saying quite a lot.”The legislation is a provision in the state budget that was backed by the Republican majority in the Ohio House of Representatives. It is now headed to the Ohio Senate, which also has a GOP majority.

Currently, Ohio requires voters to be “a resident of Ohio for at least 30 days
immediately before the election in which you want to vote” and to provide photo identification, a current utility bill, a bank statement, current paycheck, current government check, or “an original or copy of a current other government document, other than a voter registration acknowledgement notification mailed by the board of elections, that shows the voter’s name and current address.” Students who live in dormitories and do not have state identification or a job or bank account in Ohio might not be able to meet this requirement even if they have lived in the state for over a month. Public universities provide letters or utility bills to students to help them meet the residency requirement for voter registration. If the legislation is passed, it would force schools that provide this documentation to charge out-of-state students the same tuition they charge students from Ohio.

This change would effectively eliminate out-of-state tuition, which is more expensive than the rates currently charged to students from Ohio. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, university officials have said they will continue to provide the documentation even if this item remains in the state budget and a group called Innovation Ohio that opposes the legislation has estimated the will cost the schools about $272 million.

Supporters of the legislation said it will streamline government.

“The amendment has the purpose of getting a discussion going on sort of the mismatch that exists in Ohio, where we have one requirement for when a student becomes in-state for tuition purposes and another requirement for voting,” Republican state Rep. Ron Amstutz told the Enquirer.

To qualify for in-state tuition, Ohio law requires students to have gone to an Ohio high school or have a parent or spouse who lives or is employed in the state prior to enrollment. Registering to vote simply requires identification and the 30 days of residency.

Opponents of the legislation argue it is designed to give the GOP an electoral advantage by making it harder for students, who traditionally vote Democratic, to cast their ballots. Ohio has been seen as a crucial battleground state in the last few presidential elections. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the state by just 166,000 vote and Ohio has about 24,000 out-of-state students.

“They’re somehow trying to thwart the strategy that worked to elect President Obama,” Democratic Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney told the Enquirer when asked about the motivation of the legislation’s supporters.

Tokaji agreed, but added that strategy might backfire.

“The way that they’ve written this bill makes it clear that its only purpose is to suppress student voting,” he said. “What I’d say to the Republican Party is this is not only a shameful strategy, but it’s a stupid strategy because, you know, the Republican Party already has a signifcant problem with young voters. They’re on the verge of losing a generation of voters. Their path to victory is not to suppress the student vote, but to win the student vote.”

The Ohio Senate has until June 5 to remove the provision from the budget, but the Enquirer reported it is “likely to stay.” After that, the provision could be removed from the budget by the House speaker, who initially supported it, or Ohio Senate President Keith Faber. Faber’s office did not immediately respond to a request from TPM to comment on the provision. If the clause is included in the joint budget from the Legislature, it could be vetoed by Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich. A spokesman for Kasich’s office told the Enquirer the item was not in the governor’s proposed budget but did not say whether he would veto it if it passed through the Legislature.

If the provision is included in the budget, Tokaji said it could be challenged with a lawsuit.

University officials told the Enquirer they felt it was “inappropriate to use in-state tuition as a mechanism in a voting bill.” They also said they were asked to provide the documentation “several years ago” by the Ohio secretary of state. A spokesman for Ohio’s current secretary of state, Republican Jon Husted, told TPM he is not pushing for the universities to provide students with documentation to help them register to vote.

“That request was made by a prior secretary of state,” the spokesman said. “This is not a priority for Secretary Husted and we think its more about tuition than it is voting. It’s not going to prevent anyone from being able to cast a ballot.”

For his part, Tokaji disputed the argument the provision is not designed to affect voting.

“Their party line has been this is about tuition not about voting,” Tokaji said of Republican supporters of the legislation. “Well, if you believe that, there’s a bridge across the Ohio River that I’d like to sell you for cheap.”

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