Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, the state’s chief election officer, put out a rather cheery press release this week to let Ohio voters know how well off they are when it comes to early voting.
“Voting in Ohio is easy,” the headline read, accompanied by a multi-colored graphic showing Ohio and its multiple ways of voting, alongside mean old states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, which Husted said don’t afford voters so many opportunities.
“There has been a lot of discussion about recent changes in the voting laws,” Husted wrote, in what might be the understatement of the year. “Some of that discussion has informed and some of it has misled. As the chief elections official in our state I want you to have the facts about how easy it is to vote in Ohio.”
There are, the Republican secretary of state said, three options:
Option 1: Around Labor Day, Husted’s office will mail absentee ballot applications to all Ohio voters. Complete it, return it in the envelope provided and an absentee ballot will be mailed to you starting 28 days before the November election. “Then, when it is most convenient to you and from the comfort of your own home, you can fill out your ballot,’’ Husted said. You can mail it back in the security envelope provided or drop it off at your county board of elections.
Option 2: Beginning Oct. 7 and over the course of four week, you can go to your county board of elections and cast an early ballot in person. But only on the scheduled Husted issued a few weeks ago, which includes only two weekend days – the two Saturdays before the November election.
Option 3: You can do it the old-fashioned way, where you can pick yourself up on election day, go to your assigned polling place and cast a ballot. “Ohio is the most important swing state in the nation and as Secretary of State, I will continue to work to build the best system of elections in the nation where it will continue to be easy to vote and hard to cheat,’’ Husted wrote.
Easy as pie, eh?
Would that it were that easy. It is not.
Ohio Democrats were enraged over Husted eliminating most weekend early in-person voting, particularly Sunday voting – which shoots down the “Souls to the Polls” efforts that have been used in African-American churches around the state to take voters after Sunday services. You can bet the ranch that most of those voters cast ballots for Democrats.
And the Democrats were enraged at the Ohio General Assembly for passing a law cutting the early voting period from 35 days before the election to 29 – thus eliminating what is known as the “Golden Week” – the period when people could show up at boards of elections, register to vote, and cast their ballots immediately. And they were enraged at Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, for signing it into law.
The 35-day early voting period has been in effect since 2006; and it has seemed to favor Democrats – particularly when it comes to early in-person voting.
“If it is that easy to vote in Ohio, then why does (Husted) have to keep telling everybody?,’’ said Chris Redfern, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “It’s a straw man defense; and an insult to Ohio voters.”
“Yes, it’s easy to vote in Ohio,’’ Redfern said. “Easy if you live in a wealthy neighborhood, have your own car, have no children and don’t have to go to work.”
Voting, Redfern said, “is not a privilege. Driving on I-75 is a privilege. Voting is a right. And anything that restricts that right is wrong and we have to fight it.”
And fight it they will, apparently.
Redfern said the party and its allies are preparing to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging Husted’s rulings and the new voting laws passed by the Republicans in the legislature.
The party chairman has sent out e-mail appeals to supporters around the state asking for contributions to a “voter defense fund” to pay the costs of a potential lawsuit.
“It will cost thousands and thousands of dollars,’’ Redfern said. “Lawyers don’t work for free.”
And, running on a parallel track, the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, black clergy and other civil rights activists around the state are mounting a petition drive to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot called “the Ohio Voting Rights Act,’’ which supporters say would undo much of the damage they say statehouse Republicans have done to ballot access, particularly early voting.
The Ohio Ballot Board approved the language for the constitutional amendment Thursday, which allows supporters to go ahead with a statewide petition campaign.
They have a daunting task ahead of them – collecting over 385,000 valid signatures of Ohio voters from at least 44 of the state’s 88 counties and file their petitions by July 2 – the deadline for statewide ballot petitions.
By that time, there will most likely be a federal lawsuit or lawsuits challenging the GOP changes.
Matthew McClellan, a spokesman for Husted, said the complaints from the Democrats are unwarranted.
“The fact is Ohio’s early voting period is well above the average among states that allow early voting,’’ McClellan said.
Many nearby states – like Michigan, Kentucky and Pennsylvania – don’t even have an early voting option, McClellan said.
“People can believe what they want; people can say what they want,’’ McClellan said. “But, if you look at the facts, It’s hard to imagine people thinking it is hard to vote in Ohio.”
But there are people who can not only imagine it, but believe it wholeheartedly.
And the Republicans in the Statehouse are about to hear from them in a battle that could go on throughout the 2014 campaign cycle.