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.
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 Legislators repealed the law in May 2012.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 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.”