Politics

Ohio Republicans Sneak Last-Minute ‘Poll Tax’ Into Transportation Budget

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

Darius Reeves, 16, right, of Columbus signs his signature as a customer service specialist processes his driver's license at the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles.

Under a last-minute addition to Ohio’s transportation budget, close to 116,000 college students will have to pay what a Democratic lawmaker is calling a “poll tax” in order to vote.

Republicans in the state Senate late last week inserted into the budget bill a provision which would require people who move to the state and register to vote to re-register their cars with Ohio within 30 days. Otherwise, they would be required to surrender their driver’s licenses from their home state. A joint House and Senate committee will debate the legislation and whether to keep the provision Tuesday afternoon.

If the provision is not removed, out-of-state college students will have to pay close to $100 to re-register their vehicles in Ohio in order to cast a ballot in their new home state, placing another barrier on voting in a state whose elections chief’s efforts have actually made it harder for people to vote.

“It’s very concerning the message we’re sending to young people and to people moving to our great state about their fundamental right to vote,” state Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D), who is fighting the provision, told ThinkProgress. “I would like to throw out the welcome mat to them and encourage them to participate in their community and participate in their democracy, but this provision does the exact opposite.”

Clyde said the provision was added to the budget at the last minute after the public hearings were over, so it “didn’t have any vetting or public comment or much time for us to get information out about it.” State law currently permits out-of-state college and university students to register to vote in Ohio without giving up their driver’s licenses or vehicle registrations from their home states.

In addition to students, she said the provision would affect other young people and those who recently moved to the state who would be averse to paying to register their vehicles before their previous registrations expired. “Transient populations tend to be poorer and I worry about the effect that this could have on them as well,” Clyde said.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D) told the Columbus Dispatch that he could also see the provision stopping some younger people, who tend to lean Democrat, from voting.

But Republican lawmakers in Ohio are insisting that the provision is just another way for the state to raise transportation revenue. “Quite frankly, any effort to label this as voter suppression or a poll tax is weak political spin,” John Fortney, a spokesman for the majority Senate Republican caucus, told reporters.

Clyde said Republican lawmakers made a similar effort to add a provision to the budget in 2013 which would have required universities to grant in-state tuition to students from other states if the students use university documents to vote in Ohio. Opponents claimed the measure was designed to prevent the schools from making voting easier for out-of-state students, who tend to vote Democratic. In the end, the measure was strongly opposed by the universities and was shot down.

Lawmakers in Maine have also made efforts to require out-of-state students to register their vehicles in order to vote, Clyde said.

“One of the problems with it being put into the transportation budget at the last minute is we have had very little time to do research on all the ways the provision is going to harm voters, much less how it compares to what other states do,” she said.

Clyde said she is hopeful that state Republicans didn’t think through the impacts of the provision and will remove it during the House and Senate conference committee Tuesday. But the Republican Senate president has already indicated that he will not be willing to let it go, she said.

The measure would be the latest in a series of efforts Ohio Republicans have made to suppress votes from populations that tend to vote for Democrats. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has launched investigations into what he considers a widespread problem of non-citizens voting across the state, but the results prove otherwise. Last year, Ohio also joined an error-riddled multi-state voter purge database which Husted claimed would prevent voters from casting ballots in multiple states during an election.

The suppression efforts might be working — voting in Ohio dropped by 22 percent from 2010 to 2014 and the state ranked 34th in overall turnout in 2014.

UPDATE

The transportation budget conference committee kept the 30 day residency requirement in the budget it passed on Tuesday, according to a local reporter.

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