NATION: Ohio's Secretary of State Subverts Voting Rights

October 9, 2012
Ari Berman
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Once again, political experts are predicting that the 2012 presidential election could be decided in the battleground state of Ohio, like it was in 2004.

Remember what happened that year? George W. Bush won the state by a narrow 118,000 votes in an election marred by widespread electoral dysfunction. “The misallocation of voting machines led to unprecedented long lines that disenfranchised scores, if not hundreds of thousands, of predominantly minority and Democratic voters,” found a post-election report by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. According to one survey, 174,000 Ohioans, 3 percent of the electorate, left their polling place without voting because of massive lines in urban precincts and on college campuses. Ohio’s Secretary of State that year was Ken Blackwell, co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

Ohio’s GOP secretary of state in 2012, Jon Husted, is proving to be a worthy successor to Blackwell. He has banned early voting hours on nights and weekends in Ohio, when it is most convenient for most Ohioans to vote, has fired Democratic election commissioners who challenge his voting restrictions, and is now appealing a court decision reinstating early voting on the three days prior to the election—which the GOP eliminated except for members of the military—to the US Supreme Court. Early voting has already begun in Ohio, but four weeks out until the election, Husted is doing his damndest to confuse the hell out of Ohio voters and undermine their voting rights.

Early voting emerged as a popular reform in Ohio in response to the 2004 election. Nearly 30 percent of Ohioans voted early in 2008. It was only after Barack Obama built a huge lead among early voters in 2008 that Republicans decided to curtail early voting following the 2010 election.

One hundred and forty-eight thousand votes were cast in 2008 during early voting hours eliminated by Husted and the Ohio GOP. The restrictions on early voting disproportionately harm African-American voters, who just so happen to be Obama’s strongest supporters in the state. African-Americans comprise 21 percent of the population in Franklin (Columbus) and Montgomery (Dayton) counties, 24 percent in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and 28 percent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) but accounted for 31 percent, 52 percent, 42 percent and 56 percent of early voters in the respective counties in 2008. (Nearly half of early voters in Franklin County in 2008 cast ballots on nights or weekends.) “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine,” Franklin County Republican Chair Doug Preisse infamously told the Columbus Dispatch in August. Black voters in Cuyahoga County used in-person early voting at a rate twenty-six times greater than whites in 2008, according to a new study by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

97,000 votes were cast in Ohio in 2008 during the last three days of the election, which Husted and the Ohio GOP want to eliminate (except for Republican-learning members of the military), and two courts recently reinstated. “The majority (57 percent) of these 97,000 votes were cast in thirteen larger counties, disproportionately affecting African-Americans and low-income voters,” found a report from the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates. The Obama campaign argued in court that it made no sense to allow early voting for members of the military but no one else in Ohio, which the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently agreed with. By appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court, Husted is restricting the right of all voters, military voters included.

Responded Bob Bauer, general counsel of the Obama campaign:

There is no justification for the state’s arbitrary actions this year in trying to deny the vast majority of its voters access to open polling places for the last three days before the election. This has been the unanimous conclusion of the courts that have considered this case.

The Secretary of State has now chosen to extend the litigation and to ask the United States Supreme Court to intervene just four weeks before the election. We have no reason to believe that he will meet with any more success now than before.

It is a shame that the Secretary would not have committed his office’s energy instead to implementing the outstanding court orders and administering the orderly and effective early voting process that has served Ohio voters so well since 2005.

The election is twenty-eight days away and Ohio voters still can’t vote during the most convenient times before Election Day—on nights, weekends or the weekend before the election. The prospect of the Supreme Court’s getting involved will add further confusion. Rick Hasen, an elections expert at the UC-Irvine School of Law and the author of The Voting Wars, says the Court may be reluctant to intervene so close to the election, but “if they do take it, I think they would reverse [the lower court].” The Supreme Court intervening on behalf of Republicans to decide a presidential election in a critical battleground state? Sadly it’s happened before.