Will GOP voting changes fire up Democratic base in Ohio?
In politics, if you have the numbers, you get to make the rules.
In Ohio, the Republicans have the numbers – they control both the Ohio House and Senate, they have one of their own in the governor’s office, John Kasich, and a Republican as the state’s chief elections officer, Secretary of State Jon Husted.
What Kasich, Husted and the legislature have done in recent weeks is to wield that power to make some rather big changes in the early voting system Ohio has used since 2006.
The Republicans tell you it is a matter of making the system less susceptible to fraud and making the rules the same for all 88 of Ohio’s counties – big urban counties, small rural counties and all those in-between.
The Democrats, on the other hand, will tell you it is all a conspiracy by the GOP to reduce the number of Democrats – particularly urban African-American Democrats – who cast early ballots, either by mail or in person at their county boards of elections.
It is a battle that will go on throughout this statewide election year and probably beyond; and could lead to some court challenges to the changes the statehouse Republicans have made.
Here’s what has happened so far:
On Feb. 21, Kasich, without comment or fanfare, signed into law two bills passed by the Republicans in the legislation.
The first cuts Ohio’s early voting period from 35 days before the election to 29. That eliminates what is known as “Golden Week.” The voter registration deadline in Ohio is 30 days before the election.
That basically gave people about a week – the “Golden Week” – where they could show up at the board of elections and cast their early ballots at the same time.
Republicans argued that “Golden Week” opened up the potential of fraud, saying board of elections officials had no time to check whether the person filing the voter registration form was who he or she purported to be.
The other bill, which was introduced by State Rep. Bill Coley of Butler County, bans individual county boards of elections from mass-mailing unsolicited absentee voter applications to all voters in the county.
That has been done in the past by some of the larger urban counties – including Hamilton County – which could afford to send the applications out to hundreds of thousands of voters. Most small rural counties – which tend to vote Republican - can’t afford to do that.
Under Coley’s law, only the secretary of state can send out absentee ballot applications to all voters in the state, if the legislature gives him the money to do it. Husted has already said he will send the applications to all Ohio voters for the November election.
And, as if that didn’t make Democrats around the state mad enough, Husted tossed more fuel on the fire this past week by ordering all 88 counties to use the same schedule for early, in-person voting at the boards of elections.
In past elections, many counties have had weekend voting throughout the 35-day early voting period, including the Sunday and Monday before the election.
No more, Husted said. His schedule includes only one day of Saturday voting for the May primary (May 3, the final Saturday before the primary. It includes two Saturdays to vote in the November election (Oct. 25 and Nov. 1).
No Sunday voting. No voting on the Monday before election day.
Husted says it is fair and sets the same rules for all 88 counties.
“In 2014, absentee voters will have the option of voting in person for four weeks, or they can vote without ever leaving their homes by completing the absentee ballot form we will be sending all voters,’’ Husted said in a written statement.
“Our goal is to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in the voting process no matter which method they choose,’’ Husted said.
Democrats immediately lit up Husted over his directive and the new laws passed by the legislature.
Baloney, Ohio Democrats said to both the GOP bills and Husted’s early voting hours.
Chris Redfern, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, has said his party would sue to keep the bills from going into effect.
State Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland, the Democrat running for secretary of state, routinely calls Husted “the secretary of voter suppression.”
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald – the Democratic candidate for governor – blasted the end of “Golden Week” and said he would go to the Cuyahoga County Council with legislation to send absentee ballot applications to all voters in the county – in direct defiance of Husted’s early voting schedule.
And a national Democratic group called iVote has started running internet ads attacking Republican secretaries of state around the country whom they believe are engaged in voter suppression. Husted is one of the targets.
Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said all of these actions – the laws passed by the GOP legislature and Husted’s setting of limits on in-person early voting – are all aimed at driving down the early voting turnout in large urban counties, which tend to vote Democratic and have large African-American voting blocks.
“When we have had Sunday voting, there were long lines of people outside the board of elections wanting to vote; and many of these were African-Americans,’’ Burke said. “What this Republican Party is doing is trying to make it harder to vote.”
As for the “Golden Week” ballots, said Burke, who also chairs the county board of elections, those ballots were set aside and not counted until they could confirm the identities of the persons casting the ballot.
But “Golden Week” is gone; and so too are the days when only the big urban (and heavily Democratic) counties could send out absentee ballot applications.
What Ohio Democratic Party leaders are hoping is that the actions of the Republicans in power in Columbus will turn out large numbers of Democratic voters – particularly African-Americans – this fall, when Kasich, Husted and all the GOP statewide office-holders are up for re-election.
The Republicans in Columbus have the votes and the power to set what rules they want, but they also run the risk of waking up the Democratic base.
Power can be a double-edged sword.