Voting Rights Redux

Ohio Democrats launch statewide initiative to protect voting access from GOP-led limitations


he process of voting any and all bums out of office should they prove unfit for the high honor of governance is a staple of American democracy — just like the various pieces of legislation that eventually allowed women and minorities to participate in the voting process.

Yet nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally overturned Jim Crow laws and allowed black people to vote, the fight over voting rights rages on, especially in swing states critical to national elections and congressional seats that might swing power from one side of the aisle to the other.

Ohio is at the forefront of the fight as activists work to defend long-held voting practices from Republican-led efforts to limit citizens’ options for casting their ballots.

“It’s troubling that still in this day and age we have to fight the fight over ballot access,” says Elizabeth Walters, Ohio Democratic Party executive director, “but sadly we’re used to it.”

The Ohio Democratic Party’s latest attempt to ensure that every citizen has an opportunity to vote is the recently organized Voter Defense Protection Fund and the creation of an official voter protection director, Lindsay Langholz, to oversee a team of lawyers and activists monitoring voting access across the state.

“This is a formal way for us to educate our stakeholders around what we do year in and year out and also a formalized tool for us to continue to promote this agenda with our activists and our party folks,” Walters says.

GOP-led efforts to limit voting opportunities have been well documented in recent years, especially in Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has repeatedly attempted to limit early voting hours. Republicans have typically cited a need for uniformity and fairness across the state’s 88 counties as the reasoning behind taking away options from counties that use their own resources to make voting easier.

The Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee filed a motion May 1 requesting to maintain early voting hours during the three days prior to Election Day. A judge in 2012 forced Husted to reinstate the same time period after he attempted to end the in-person voting period on the Friday before election day rather than leaving it open through the final weekend and Monday before polls open.   

“The more things change, the more they stay the same, in violation of the equal protection rights of Ohio’s voters,” the motion reads. “The Ohio General Assembly and Secretary of State are using the same 2012 playbook for the 2014 elections.”

The ACLU of Ohio also filed a lawsuit May 1 seeking to reinstate an early voting period called “Golden Week” — the first week of early voting when voters can register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day. It also asks the court reinstate Sunday voting, the Monday before Election Day and all evening voting hours.

“Ohio has again taken center stage in the battle over voting rights,” said Dale Ho, ACLU Voting Rights Project director, in a statement. “Politicians who tamper with people’s fundamental right to vote are being put on notice that they are not going to get away with it.”

Republican Gov. John Kasich in February signed S.B. 205, which prohibits local boards of elections from their historical practice of mailing out unsolicited absentee ballots. The practice is now up to Husted, and he can’t send them out unless the General Assembly first appropriates funding.

Democrats have long accused Republicans of purposely limiting options for minority and low-income people — who tend to vote Democratic — to have their votes counted.

“When you reduce voting hours you make it harder for working people to vote,” says Walters of the Democratic Party. “If you’re someone making an hourly wage and the only time you can get to the ballot is taken away and you’re working a 12-hour shift or you don’t get paid, that’s a direct hit to voting access.”

Ohio is one of the first states in the country to organize an on-the-ground presence to monitor local and statewide legislation that might adversely affect voting access. The Ohio Voter Defense Fund’s stated mission is to organize attorneys and build voter education opportunities across the state. The OVDF’s voter-protection team regularly meets to discuss proposed changes in any Ohio county board of elections.

“It’s important to know when things happen so they can’t sneak things in and we’re not finding out when it’s too late,” Walters says.

Ninety-six thousand Ohioans voted during the three days prior to Election Day in 2012, accounting for about 16 percent of early in-person ballots. The ACLU in its lawsuit noted that voters cast 157,000 ballots during Golden Week in 2012, a disproportionally high percentage of which came from minority, low-income and single-parent households who have trouble making it to the polls on a Tuesday. Sunday voting, which Husted eliminated in February along with evening hours, is particularly popular at black churches.

“Together these cuts will impact tens of thousands of low-income voters, elderly voters, student voters and African-American voters who turn to early in-person voting as their best option for casting a ballot,” said Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, in a statement.

During the 2012 election, a close advisor to Kasich admitted that support for Husted’s then-new “uniform voting hours” — which also limited early voting and weekend hours across the state — was based on the potential to limit black voting, which typically favors Democrats.

“I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine,” wrote Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, in an email to The Columbus Dispatch on Aug. 19, 2012.

Hamilton County has recently seen its own party-line split over a voting access issue. The county Board of Elections early this year deadlocked 2-2 over whether to move its offices to a new facility in Mount Airy, where only one bus line runs, from its downtown headquarters after the 2016 election. Republicans voted for the move to help consolidate services at the county-owned facility, while Democrats argued that public transportation limitations will make it harder for people who don’t have cars to get to the polls. Husted broke the tie in favor of moving.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, a Democrat, supports keeping the Board of Elections downtown and in January offered free space in the city-owned Shillito’s building, but Republican County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, a Republican, said the Mount Airy facility wouldn’t have enough occupancy without the Board of Elections joining other services in the new location.

As state Democrats gear up for a competitive gubernatorial race between Kasich and Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald this year, the party will once again spend considerable resources just to ensure its supporters have a chance to make their voices heard.

“I can’t really think of a higher priority than to protect the vote for all Ohioans as we look ahead,” Walters says. “Voting doesn’t just happen in November of 2014 — it happens in municipalities across our state in 2015, ’16 and ’17. This has been a priority for the party for a long time.” ©

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