Not broken but 'fixed' anyway


IN ADOPTING new rules that make voter registration in Ohio more difficult, the General Assembly has recklessly ignored the old and wise country adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Contrary to partisan bloviating by majority Republicans, there were no serious problems with the process by which Ohioans signed up to vote - until Secretary of State Ken Blackwell got into the act.

As everyone should know by now, Mr. Blackwell has piggybacked his concentric roles as the state's chief elections officer, GOP presidential campaign chairman, and candidate for governor in an increasingly unseemly and political fashion.

For example, in 2004, when he was co-chairman of the state Bush-Cheney campaign, Mr. Blackwell issued an order requiring voter registration forms to be printed on heavyweight paper. That made it impossible for the forms to be published in newspapers as a convenience to the public.

He backed off the decree, but it appeared the intent was to suppress registration and ultimately voter turnout in Ohio, which eventually decided the presidential election. Whatever the case, seeds of confusion were sown in the election process, just as they are with the latest registration rules.

The new regulations, approved during a raucous hearing by the legislature's Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, could complicate the registration process because of overly restrictive language regarding those who are paid to register voters and who exactly must return registration forms to election authorities.

In writing the law, the legislature used the word "person," which the General Assembly's nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission says can, under state law, include organizations. Mr. Blackwell's rules, approved by majority Republicans on JCARR, define person as an individual human being. The penalty for violating the rules is a fifth-degree felony.

Good-government groups, as well as unions and other organizations, maintain that the ambiguity will kill traditional registration drives using volunteers because no one will want to risk a felony conviction.

Republicans claim that the tougher rules are necessary to combat fraud, but the few examples they've come up with stem mostly from a minor incident in Defiance County in 2004.

In that case, obviously false registration forms - submitted with the names of celebrities and film characters - were shortstopped by the county board of elections. One man, who had been compensated with crack cocaine, got a 54-month prison sentence. No one was registered illegally and no one voted improperly.

That's the way the system is supposed to work and did for years, until Republicans seized control of the election apparatus and instituted their partisan mischief.

Voter registration should not be a partisan matter. The process should be simple and widely available, with appropriate safeguards against fraud. That's how it was in the past, but the new rules will have the opposite effect.