Al Behrman / File / AP

Ohio’s choice for secretary of state could influence elections in 2016

CINCINNATI — Over the past four presidential elections, Ohio has been a key state: Whoever carries Ohio carries the Electoral College. And the most pivotal counties in Ohio are large urban ones like Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton.

The population of Hamilton County is two-thirds white and one-quarter black. President Barack Obama carried the county in 2012 with 51.8 percent of the vote. Before Obama, Hamilton County had voted for a Democrat for president only three times in the past 100 years. George W. Bush carried it with 52.5 percent in 2004.

The political outcomes of Ohio rely heavily on black voters, and on their ability to vote. Early voting and absentee ballots are more commonly used by minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.

The big issue for the 2014 midterms will be the right to vote in this battleground state. Because the secretary of state controls how the state’s 8 million registered voters go to the polls, November’s winner here has the power to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted provides an overview of voting initiatives at a forum in January. Husted said it is easy to vote in Ohio and difficult to cheat.

Incumbent Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, won handily in the last election, in 2010. He has since made his mark through various voting regulations — especially those regarding early voting — in the Buckeye State. Husted has done a good job in furthering the Republican agenda, but he has also done a good job of firing up the Democratic opposition.

Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, the Democratic nominee, a former Cleveland city councilwoman and the current state Senate minority whip, hopes to make this fall’s elections about the right to vote. “I am running because I believe Ohioans deserve access and opportunities, both at the ballot box and in business,” she said. Turner, an African-American, has been on the fast track since 2008, when she went to Columbus as a state senator. She has made frequent appearances on MSNBC and has earned a reputation as a firebrand. (Last year, when Ohio legislators put forth a bill requiring drug tests for welfare recipients, Turner countered with legislation requiring drug tests for Ohio Statehouse lawmakers.)

The rough-and-tumble world of Ohio politics is notoriously partisan, and the secretary of state can do much to benefit his or her political party.

The major issue in this year’s campaign for secretary of state is early voting, and the ease with which Ohioans can exercise their right to vote. Democrats want to expand the voting field and make it easier to vote, while Republicans are concerned about the legitimacy of easier voting, and point to the possibility of fraud.

The battle over the polls has been going on in Ohio for years. When legislative restrictions against early voting were passed in 2011, more than 300,000 Ohioans petitioned to put the bill to a referendum. Legislators repealed the law in May 2012. Husted subsequently fought in court to restrict in-person early voting, even trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court involved, but the high court denied action in 2012.

The rough-and-tumble world of Ohio politics is notoriously partisan, and the secretary of state can do much to benefit his or her political party. That’s why both parties have called in outside help. Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee initiated its Voter Expansion Project with the intent of pushing back on laws the party sees as restrictive — with particular focus on Ohio. Former Obama and Clinton staffers are involved in iVote, which targets secretary of state races in Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa — states that will be critical in the 2016 presidential election. Husted, in turn, has attracted a lot of money from Republican donors who recognize the importance of this election. The Ohio Voter Integrity Project — which is allied with True the Vote, a tea-party-affiliated vote-monitoring organization — has also taken up the cause of eliminating voter fraud in the state. 

The fight has escalated this year. The Republican majority has changed voting laws by altering absentee-ballot rules and restricting polling hours. The Ohio GOP denies there is a political motive to its actions, saying these measures are needed to ensure “election integrity.” A shorter voting window, they assert, gives county election officials time to verify eligibility before a voter is allowed to cast a ballot.

In February, Senate Bill 238 eliminated six early-voting days — known in Ohio as the Golden Week — when voters could register and vote on the same day. Democrats objected, even though some of them had supported a similar measure in 2009.

“The latest round of voting restrictions in Senate Bill 238 are totally Republican-driven,” said Joseph Mismas, managing editor of Plunderbund, an Ohio political blog. The bill was hastened through the Ohio Legislature. There were only two committee hearings associated with the bill (a typical bill has at least three), which passed the Senate within a week of its introduction. Once it was voted through the Legislature, Gov. John Kasich quickly signed it.

That same month, another law, Senate Bill 205, stopped county boards of election from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballots to registered voters. The bill allows only the secretary of state to send ballots — if legislators appropriate money for it — which means large urban counties can no longer do so on their own. Republicans said voters were not treated equally because some counties mailed ballots and paid for return postage, while others did not.

Then, through a directive issued on the heels of both laws, Secretary of State Husted cut Sunday and evening voting, and eliminated voting on the Monday before an election.

Democrats howled, saying that because early voting is used disproportionately by minorities, extended hours and absentee ballots weren’t simply matters of convenience. They viewed the laws as attempts to suppress the vote of likely Democratic voters. The state has had 35 days of no-fault early voting since 2005, and Democrats saw no compelling reason to change that.

In 2012, roughly a third of early voting was done in person — much of it by African-American voters. Lines are longer in urban counties, and extended hours make it easier for minorities to vote. According to one Democratic survey, black voters in Ohio in 2004 waited an average of 51.8 minutes to vote, compared with 17.9 minutes for white voters. Early voting helped mitigate that difference.

The new voting schedule reflects what a group of election officials want. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the voters want.

Carrie Davis

League of Women Voters of Ohio

The restriction on Sunday voting also has an effect on voting among African-Americans. The popular “Souls to the Polls” programs brought many black churchgoers to the polls after their Sunday services, as pastors drove vans filled with congregants to vote.

Husted contends that the changes were driven by bipartisan recommendation. “The hours for early, in-person absentee voting came about as a result of a bipartisan voting schedule recommended by local Republican and Democratic elections officials,” he said, pointing to the Ohio Association of Election Officials, which wanted early-voting restrictions. In terms of absentee voting, Husted reasoned that the mailing of unrequested ballots should be standardized, as not all Ohio counties sent ballots to every registered voter.

Others disagree about the need to rein in voting. “The new voting schedule reflects what a group of election officials want,” says Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “But it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the voters want.”

“Working on voting rights is all about power,” says Mike Brickner, director of communications for ACLU Ohio. “Statewide rules do make sense. We don’t disagree with the idea of uniformity. But you don’t get to uniformity by taking away opportunities.”

Husted points out that Ohio still has a liberal voting policy. “With absentee voting starting 28 days before the election,” he said in a statement to Al Jazeera America, “Ohio remains above the national average for access to voting. Many of our surrounding states, including Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New York, don’t even provide an early voting option.”

Husted chose not to comment about the effect the changes could have on African-American voters, other than to say he is “focused on ensuring all voters are treated equally and that it is easy to vote in Ohio.”

Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner.
Tony Dejak / AP

Senator Turner, of course, disagrees. “The early voting opportunities Ohioans have enjoyed now for almost a decade have been working,” she says. “No compelling case has been made as to why voters should no longer have them. It is clear, and has been for some time, that cutting these days and hours disproportionately affects working Ohioans, people of color, students and the elderly. Instead of making it harder to vote, we should be working to make casting a ballot simple, convenient and secure for all eligible Ohioans.”

It came as no surprise when, earlier this month, the ACLU sued on behalf of seven plaintiffs in U.S. District Court to overturn Senate Bill 238, along with Husted’s Directive 2014–16. The suit asks the court to restore Golden Week and permit counties to set their own early in-person voting hours. It claims the changes place burdens on the right to vote and are discriminatory, citing denials of equal protections under the 14th Amendment, as well as violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Even though a strong case can be made that voting changes have a negative effect on minorities, it will be difficult to demonstrate that the effect was intentional. “It’s not an implausible theory in the least,” says Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University, about the lawsuit. “But they have to prove it. And proving discriminatory intent is challenging.”

Other Ohio Republicans have addressed the subject as well. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Matt Huffman, a GOP representative for Ohio’s Fourth District, asked earlier this year whether lawmakers should “cater to” a “group of people who say, ‘I’m only voting if someone drives me down after church.’”

Some Ohioans have questioned whether the fraud concerns are disingenuous. Obama carried the state by 166,000 votes in 2012. That year, 5.6 million votes were cast in Ohio. As of May 2013, only 135 potential fraud cases had been referred to local law enforcement for possible prosecution. Even if all these referrals resulted in actual fraud — and most of them did not — it wouldn’t have had any effect on the 2012 election. Husted admits that while he still believes it exists, fraud is rare. Turner suggests more attention could be paid to the thousands of provisional ballots that are tossed out in every election.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in April, Turner is preferred among Ohio voters, 45 to 44 percent. “Nina Turner is going to struggle to get name recognition statewide,” says Mismas. “Fortunately for her, she is also a great and motivating speaker. Once people hear her speak, they remember her.”

Still, it will be a tough election — and history suggests Turner has a struggle ahead of her. Democrats have never elected a black candidate to statewide office in Ohio. And Husted enjoys a decided advantage in funding, even though Turner has been making up ground with national donors. It’s possible that Republican efforts to limit voting will fire up the Democratic base.

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