The debate over voting rights in Ohio rages on, unabated.
Democrats argue that the Republicans in the legislature and the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, have done everything in their power to make it difficult for Democrats – particularly African-American voters – to cast a ballot.
Husted and the Republicans argue that you would be hard-pressed to find a state that gives its people more opportunities to cast a ballot, with its 28-day early voting period for both mail-in absentee ballots and early in-person voting at the state’s 88 county boards of elections.
It’s not an argument that is likely to be settled soon.
It might have been settled at this November’s election, had the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus (OLBC) and its allies succeeded this week in gathering enough petition signatures to put an “Ohio Voters Bill of Rights” on the ballot; and had they convinced a majority of Ohio voters to support it. But backers of the measure could gather only about 100,000 signatures, which was about 285,000 short of what they needed to make the November ballot.
That Voters Bill of Rights would have restored the “Golden Week” eliminated by the Republicans in the legislature in February – a week of early voting before the voter registration deadline where people could register to vote at their county boards of elections and cast their ballots at the same time.
It would also have allowed Ohioans to register to vote online, expand the number of ways that voters could prove their identity when casting ballots, and allow anyone to cast a provisional ballot at any polling place, as long as he or she lived in the county where the vote was cast.
But the petition drive failed.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, a Bond Hill Democrat who is president of the OLBC, said the petition effort will go on, with an eye toward possibly placing the Voters Bill of Rights on the ballot next fall. The group is opening an Ohio Voters Bill of Rights office and host a statewide Ohio Voter Bill of Rights conference in the near future to mobilize for the petition drive, Reece said.
“The momentum is still growing and we will not stop until the Voter Bill of Rights is in the Ohio Constitution,’’ Reece said in a written statement. “We will continue to educate, circulate and activate throughout the summer and fall with this new civil rights movement.”
At about the same time the OLBC effort fizzled out for this year, the Ohio Conference of the NAACP went to a federal judge in Columbus asking that the “golden week” be restored and that more Sunday and evening hours be added to Husted’s in-person early voting schedule. The suit was filed with the same federal judge who, a few weeks ago, required Husted to restore early in-person voting on the three days before election day, which he did.
But, the NAACP said, Husted didn’t allow enough hours on the three days before the election – only four hours on the Sunday before election day, and not enough evening hours.
“But the impact on minorities and low-income voters will be at least as great as in 2012, as the remaining cutbacks still appear to be designed to ensure that only those who can afford to take unpaid time off work or easily make child care arrangements can cast a ballot in-person during the early voting period,’’ the lawsuit said.
Husted set 1 to 5 p.m. as an early in-person voting period on the Sunday before the election. There are no other Sunday voting periods before the election on Husted’s schedule, which applies to all 88 counties.
Democrats don’t like this, because African-American pastors, in the 2012 presidential election, organized “Souls to the Polls” efforts, where they would take members of their congregations to the board of elections to vote after Sunday services. And those voters were overwhelmingly Democratic.
Husted is clearly frustrated by the assertion that he and the Republican legislature have made it harder to vote in Ohio.
“When it comes to early voting, the national average is 19 days,’’ Husted wrote last month when he issued his early voting schedule. Ohioans, he said, have 28 days. And, in this year’s election, his office will be mailing an absentee ballot application to every registered Ohio voter. And, in Ohio, you do not have to have an excuse – such as being in the hospital or overseas or out of town on election day – to cast an absentee ballot by mail.
“I know of no other state that goes to this great of lengths to encourage voters to cast ballots before election day,’’ Husted said.
What do other states do when it comes to early voting?
When you look at the five states that border Ohio, Husted has a point. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, three of them – Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan – have no early in-person voting periods and an excuse must be provided to vote by absentee ballot. West Virginia has an early in-person voting period of 13 days. In Indiana, early in-person voting begins 29 days before the election, but voters must have an excuse to cast an absentee ballot by mail.
Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said that it doesn’t really matter what other states do. The 35-day early voting period has been in place since 2006, he said.
“Once you start to grant rights that is one thing; when you start taking them away, that is quite another,’’ Burke said. “And that is what the Republicans in Ohio have been trying to do.”
Burke’s counter-part in the Hamilton County Republican Party, Alex Triantafilou, said he believes the Democrats “play politics with this to scare people into thinking it is hard to vote in Ohio. And nothing could be further from the truth.”
The argument will go back and forth about whether the GOP has made it harder or easier to vote in Ohio – until, that is, the courts settle the issue once and for all.