U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown criticized a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Ohio’s procedure to purge infrequent voters from the registration rolls.
"Ohio should be working to make voting easier, not harder," Brown, a Democrat, tweeted June 11. "Instead, today’s decision empowers Ohio to further strip away the right to vote for thousands of Ohioans, threatening the integrity of our state’s election process."
The Ohio Republican Party called Brown a hypocrite because of a law he voted for that called for removing inactive voters.
"Here's a real fact you need to know: @ohdems were for this legal process of removing inactive voters before they were against it. As a State Rep in 1978, @SherrodBrown voted for stricter removal standards and then enforced them as Secretary of State! #Hypocrites," the Ohio GOP tweeted June 12.
Brown faces a re-election challenge from U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci.
We found that Brown did vote for the law cited by the Ohio GOP, but the tweet miscasts Brown’s longstanding policy on voter registration and takes the 1978 vote out of context.
In 1977, Democrats, including Brown, passed Senate Bill 125, which set rules for voter registration statewide. At the time, many counties had no registration requirements. This bill specifically eliminated "failure to vote as a reason for the cancellation of registration."
That same year, Republicans got a constitutional amendment on the ballot that ended same-day registration and also stated if a person failed to vote at least once in four years, then the person must re-register. Voters passed the amendment.
The next year, the state took up the topic of voter registration again in HB 1209.
The bill stated that each year, voter registrations would be canceled if the person hadn’t voted at least once in four years.The bill directed officials to send notices to voters stating their registration had been cancelled and a form to re-register. Brown voted in favor of this bill.
Two years later, the Legislature passed HB 1062, which said elections officials must send out a notice 30 days prior to cancellation. Again, Brown voted in favor of this bill.
We didn’t find any evidence from 40 years ago explaining Brown’s rationale at the time for voting for these bills. Republicans argue now that if Brown objected to purging voters he could have voted against the bills, but these bills were not establishing a new policy -- they were implementing what voters approved in the constitutional amendment.
Brown couldn’t undo the constitutional amendment, but he could vote for bills that added requirements to notify voters.
"Brown voted for two bills to protect the rights of voters at risk of being purged," Brown spokesman Preston Maddock said.
We didn’t want to just take the Brown campaign’s word for it, so we asked some long-time experts of Ohio politics about the backdrop of the 1978 bill that Brown supported.
Bob Taft, who was a Republican in the General Assembly at the time, said the Democrats had to defer to the will of the voters as reflected in the amendment to the Constitution.
"They controlled the Legislature, so they nibbled around the edges of the amendment to provide for notice," Taft said. Taft later defeated Brown to become Ohio's secretary of state office and went on to serve as governor.
Two retired long-time journalists in Ohio told us that the idea of purging voters from the rolls in the 1970s wasn’t the controversial idea that it is today.
"This whole thing about when we should cleanse voter rolls of people who haven’t voted only become an issue in this hyperpartisan age we live in now," said Mike Curtin, a former reporter and an associate publisher of the Columbus Dispatch who later became a Democratic state house member.
The Ohio GOP said that Brown enforced the stricter removal standards when he served as secretary of state from 1982 to 1991. Maddock said that Brown had to follow state law.
But he did have the power to try to grow the voter rolls, so he circulated voter registration forms just about everywhere, which included convincing McDonald’s to print voter registration forms on tray liners.
Brown convinced other businesses, including banks, utilities and a telephone company, to mail out the registration forms. The state also distributed registration forms at welfare offices, lottery outlets and homeless shelters, in addition to public schools and government offices.
"If government can find you to make you pay taxes, if government can find you to draft you under the Selective Service System, then government can work a little harder to find you to register to vote," Brown said in 1988.
The Washington Post wrote in 1985 that Ohio’s registration activity was "probably the most intensive and wide-ranging in the nation."
The Republicans said that Brown enforced removal standards as secretary of state. He would have been obligated to follow the law, but he did warn voters about it.
In 1990, Brown cautioned that having an outdated voter registration form would prohibit a voter from casting a ballot.
"Ohioans who have not voted for more than four years have had their registration canceled, because the Ohio Constitution requires it," he said in 1990, according to the Richwood Gazette.
Two months later Brown lost re-election.
In 1992, Brown was elected to Congress. The next year, he was one of dozens of co-sponsors of the National Voter Registration Act,which included provisions to make it harder for states to purge voters.
Taft, Ohio’s secretary of state at the time, revised the state’s removal policy to comply with the NVRA. He created a six-year process for removals. If voters skip one federal election, they are sent a notice by a county board of elections. If the voter doesn’t respond and doesn’t vote over the next four years, their name is purged from the roll.
In comparison, under the 1978 law, it only took four years. Also the 1978 law only notified voters after they had been removed while the current process sends a notice to voters before they are removed.
Ohio Republicans said in 1978, Brown "voted for stricter removal standards (for voter registration) and then enforced them as Secretary of State."
Brown did vote for a bill in 1978 that removed voters after four years, which is more strict that the six-year process upheld this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the GOP’s tweet ignores the context of that 1978 bill and what led to it. The bill implemented a policy approved by voters in a Constitutional amendment. Brown couldn’t undo the amendment.
The Ohio GOP also ignores Brown’s full record on voter registration. In 1977, Brown voted for a bill that eliminated "failure to vote as a reason for the cancellation of registration."
The Republicans also omit Brown’s efforts to increase the voter registration rolls while he was Secretary of State. During that time, he warned voters that they could have their registrations cancelled for not voting.
The claim is partially accurate but leaves out important context. We rate this claim Half True.