When It Comes to Voting-Rights Disputes, Ohio is No. 1. Why?

Jun 10, 2016

It’s five months until the presidential election, so two things are already well underway in Ohio. Political ads … and lawsuits over who gets to vote and when.  WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports on what’s become a sure sign of a high-stakes election year: The battle over ballots in the Buckeye state.

Betsy Heer spent her birthday in November 2004 standing in a cold rain, waiting 10½ hours to vote. She’s runs a bed-and-breakfast in the tiny town of Gambier, Ohio. Many of the 1,300 people who joined her in line were students at Kenyon College.

“So yeah, it was exhausting and it was exciting and it was frustrating and it was all those things. But it definitely was democracy in action."

And in nearly every election since, Heer has opted instead to vote early. The reason she can is an overhaul of Ohio’s early voting laws spurred by what one judge called the “disastrous” 2004 election.

Ohio's specialty
The changes helped make election days smooth. But they’ve also created cycle of laws and lawsuits that make courts in Ohio a big player in the national debate over voter access.

“They know how to ski in Colorado, we know how to litigate elections in Ohio," laughs Ned Foley, director of Ohio State University’s election-law program. He notes that the fights in Ohio include one that’s been dragging on for a decade. There are battles over rejected ballots and efforts to eliminate “Souls to the Polls” Sunday. Over purging voter rolls and eliminating same-day registration-and-voting.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is a defendant in nearly all of the cases, and expresses a bit of outrage about that.

Husted says he's championed early voting and looked for middle ground.
Credit OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

“I led the effort to expand the voting period to 35 days," he notes. Husted was speaker of the Ohio House in 2005. Facing a voter initiative to expand early voting, Republican lawmakers passed their own bill. You could vote for weeks before an election -- and on some evenings and weekends. And during so-called “Golden Week,” you could register and vote at the same time.

“And I’m still a great supporter of early voting, and I believe as an administrator of elections it really helps us.”  But, he says, that doesn't mean the law is perfect and no changes should be made. And he maintains those changes should be made by  state Legislatures, not federal courts.

"Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals. They all have different opinions and that’s great and that’s what the legislative process is about. And people will have disagreements on policies but ultimately you have to have some middle ground.

Which voters benefit?
But what he sees as middle ground – including eliminating Golden Week in exchange for expanded night and weekend hours --  challengers see as an attempt to discourage poor, young, Hispanic and African American voters.

Kathleen Clyde says the state's priority must be to encourage voting.
Credit OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

Kathleen Clyde is a Democratic legislator who’s testified in lawsuits challenging a range of GOP changes. “All of these little changes make a big difference when it comes to the accessibility for Ohioans to their democracy. 

Court rulings
And just in the last two weeks, two federal judges have agreed.

The first ordered Ohio to reinstate Golden Week because African-American voters are as much as five times more likely to use it.

The second told the state to stop throwing out ballot forms for technical problems such as missing Zip codes. He stopped short of finding intentional discrimination, but warned that “if the dog whistles in the General Assembly continue to get louder,” other courts may differ.

Ohio is appealing both decisions. Husted says they’re contradictory and defy common sense in part because they don’t give Ohio credit for having one of the longest early voting periods in the country. One of the judges did address that -- saying once a state expands voting rights, it can’t cut back in ways that discriminate.

Beyond Ohio
Ohio State elections expert Foley says, ironically, that could limit moves in other states to expand voting.

“If you are a state like Pennsylvania and New York, that’s never had early voting to begin with and therefore by definition provides their voters less opportunity than Ohio does, their legal counsel’s going to have to advise them, ‘Before you ever take any step to be expansive, you better be certain that it’s what you want because the minute you try to tweak it or adjust it, you’re vulnerable to a lawsuit.’”

At St. Paul's AME, the voting message is even on the fans in pews.
Credit RICK SENFTEN / WKSU

Meanwhile, voting battles continue in Ohio on other fronts, including a the state’s purging of voters if they don’t cast ballots in elections in any of six consecutive years.

Elation with a caveat
At St. Paul’s AME Church in Akron, voting is core to its mission. Pastor Bruce Butcher joined one of the lawsuits and celebrated the court victories. But as he was traveling this week, he says reality set in.

“For just a brief, very brief moment, I felt elated. But I know that this is just one battle in the ongoing war in the state of Ohio for everyone to have an opportunity to vote .” 

And as long as Ohio is a key battleground state, everyone expects the war to continue well beyond Nov. 8th.