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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has found himself in the crosshairs of Democrats and concerned voting groups in recent months who worry the Republican officer wasn’t doing enough to open up greater access to voting.
But there was one move Husted did this summer that pushed his critics back on their heels for a fleeting moment of agreement: when the secretary announced on Aug. 9 that his staff had made it possible for registered Ohio voters to now update and change their home addresses online through his office’s web site.
The goal is ultimately have fewer Ohio voters using those sometimes unreliable and uncounted provisional ballots. People who want to vote on Election Day can be turned away if their address does not match the information in polling books. The backup plan for those people is to use provisional ballots, which are set aside for verification and don’t always end up being counted later.
"If voters take advantage of this new tool and update their address online, it is likely that a lot fewer of them would have to vote a provisional ballot," Husted said at a news conference at his office the day he announced the change. Aside from a few reports of glitches in using the system, the news went over well.
But at the news conference that day, Husted sought to sell his idea even more by declaring that had this system been in place during the 2008 presidential election about 130,000 Ohioans who used provisional ballots might not have had to. He backed it up by blasting a news release to the masses from his office later that day.
"Had the online change of address been in place in 2008 an estimated 130,000 voters who cast provisional ballots could have changed their address online and voted a regular ballot," he said in the news release.
He made an identical claim in another news release Sept. 17, 2012.
That seemed like a fairly bold claim to PolitiFact Ohio. Consider that the state secretary of state’s office didn’t start tracking "wrong address" as a reason for having to use a provisional ballot in its routine post-election reports until 2011.
So Politifact Ohio asked the Husted’s staff for an explanation. How can you say how many people would have changed their addresses and avoided a provisional ballot in 2008 had this online address change been in effect?
After all, voters have always had the chance to change their addresses in-person.
The answer is Husted’s office doesn’t know — for certain. Husted’s spokesman Matt McClellan noted that the key word in the statement uttered in August by the secretary and plopped in the the news releases is "estimated".
"It is just an estimate assuming that voters would have taken advantage of the opportunity to change their addresses online," McClelland said.
OK, so how did you arrive at such an "estimate"?
Here’s McClelland’s explanation. Pay close attention or this might feel like a confusing mathematical equation.
First, the office determined what percentage of voters using a provisional ballot in this year’s primary were forced to do so because they had a wrong address. That’s 11,912 wrong addresses out of 20,062 total provisionals for a rate of 59.4 percent.
Second, the office determined what percentage of voters using a provisional ballot in the November 2011 general election were forced to do so because they had an incorrect address. That’s 51,404 out of 76,525 for a rate of 67.2 percent.
Next, the office looked at the number of provisionals cast in November 2008 (206,859) and multiplied that number by 67.2 percent and 59.4 percent, for totals of 139,009 and 122,874 respectively.
Lastly, the office then took the average between 139,000 and 123,000 and came up with its 130,000 estimate.
"I feel pretty good about it," McClelland said, after explaining the unscientific statistical analysis applied by the secretary’s office.
We at Politifact Ohio have been called a lot of things, but brilliant statisticians isn’t one of them. We asked Case Western Reserve University professor and chair of the mathematics department, Daniela Calvetti, to please weigh in.
"I think it is a reasonable way of estimating how many voters would be able to take advantage of this if everyone who had a provisional ballot due to incorrect address indeed went online and changes the address electronically we would have about 130,000 voters," Calvetti said.
"There is no reason to believe that the percentages would vary much because 67 percent and 59 percent are not very far (apart) in particular since one was a primary and one was a general," she said. "I think it is a sound way of making the projection."
So where does that leave Husted’s claim?
An independent expert backed the methodology Husted used to come up with the figure of 130,000, and the statement describes that as an estimate.
But the figure assumes all people would have taken advantage of the online address change, which is not certain. That’s additional information that provides clarification..
On the Truth-O-Meter, Husted’s claim rates Mostly True.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, news release, "Secretary of State Jon Husted launches another first to clean up Ohio’s voter rolls," Sept. 17, 2012
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, news release, "Secretary of State Husted launches new
online change of address tool for Ohio voters," Aug. 9, 2012
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, comments from a news conference, Aug. 9, 2012
The Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com, "Voters can now upgrade their addresses online," by Reginald Fields, Aug. 10, 2012.
Phone interview with Matt McClelland, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, Sept. 20, 2012
Phone interview with Daniela Calvetti, Case Western Reserve University, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, Sept. 24, 2012
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