Ballot Battle: State Leaders are Knuckling Down on Voter Restriction. Here in Deep-Blue Cuyahoga County, the Fight is Only Beginning (Again)

The sheer breadth of Ohio’s voting rights boondoggle is just awesome. It’s also now a regularly scheduled part of our election cycle. Republican leaders crack down, local Democrats respond, we all reach some sort of half-decent compromise, and then we live-tweet Election Day returns.

This year, though, the fight is getting really intense.

“This is the third or fourth time since I’ve been in county office that we’ve had to stand up for the most fundamental right that every single person in this county is entitled to, and that is the right to vote.” That’s Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald speaking outside the Board of Elections on Feb. 27. He was doing what Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald has been forced to do these past few years whenever voting access is trimmed statewide. Thing is, though, data and historical precedence bear out what he’s saying.

It all seems simple enough. But Statehouse leaders are making trips to the ballot box a real pain in the neck for voters (and by voters we mean black or Hispanic, poor, mostly Democratic voters).

The really odd thing about all of this is just how transparent it is. Recent legislation was approved via perfect party-line votes. Quick glances across Census data and Election Day poll results show how directly the Republican-led state government is targeting its opposition.

Here’s a quick rundown of both the directive passed down from Secretary of State Jon Husted and the bills approved by the Statehouse:

- Cutting out six-day “Golden Week” from the early voting period

- Eliminating days during which same-day registration and voting are possible

- Cutting all Sunday and evening voting opportunities

- Failing to commit to statewide absentee ballot application mailings past 2014

Early voting hours are now essentially 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. most weekdays during the four weeks prior to the election. The two Saturdays before an election also provide early voting from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Outside of typical workday hours, there’s not much wiggle room to get to the voting booths - certainly not as much as there’s been in the past.

The Sunday news is big, because, as much of the press has pointed out recently, African-American communities rallied around “Souls to the Polls” voting drives during recent elections (literally carpooling to voting locations after church services). During the weekend prior to the 2012 presidential election, early-voting lines at the polls became incredibly long and discouraging. Many observers cite decreases in both voting days and actual booths as tacit forms of “suppression” - limit the opportunity, limit the (potentially Democratic) votes. Those sorts of concerns compound when early voting days are cut.

Likewise, cutting out opportunities to register and vote on the same day simply doubles the hassle for some voters.

In response, FitzGerald has created a volunteer-based Voter Protection Task Force that will identify solutions to expanding voting opportunities and promoting awareness of how all of this will work to the public.

Part of the task force’s work hovers around data collection - mining the past for clues as who actually voted during these lost days.

FitzGerald is also pushing to enact the Cuyahoga County Voting Rights Law, which would encourage registering voters through county programs and allow the county to mail out absentee ballot applications. The state will mail applications for this year’s November election, but Secretary of State Jon Husted has not committed to doing so for future elections.

Some history: Following the 2010 midterm elections, Husted worked to rid the state of Sunday voting opportunities and other early-voting points in the run-up to Election Day. He was never really able to articulate why he wanted to do that, but the answer has always been as clear as day.

Almost one-third of all Ohio votes cast in 2012 were cast as early, absentee ballots. The stats run even higher in more urban settings like Cuyahoga. Leaving political affiliation aside, it’s clear that people are beginning to enjoy the opportunity to vote early. A prior attempt to confine early voting on the weekend prior to the election strictly to military officers and overseas residents. The move went to the U.S. Supreme Court (which did not hear the case) and resulted in a lawsuit from Obama for America.

This whole debate and all the theatrics here can so clearly be traced to partisan hegemony that it’s not even funny. It’s kinda like the gerrymandering narrative in the Statehouse. Whosoever claims high-ranking office in this state is pretty much able to write - and twist - the book.

After the 2012 backlash against Husted, he and his office decided to set the course anew.

"The bottom line is the antagonists have made an issue about the fact that voters aren't being treated fairly, that they aren't being treated the same," Husted said in August 2012. "Today we're treating voters everywhere the same." And Husted’s recent directive accomplishes that on paper, but the curtailing of weekend and evening voting opportunities, in particular, is a significant sacrifice in the name of standardization.

Unbelievable hassles at the polls during the 2004 general election prompted various levels of reform across Ohio (this really has been a long-running performance). During that election, the state had imposed “uniform” voting access in all counties. Cuyahoga County Law Director Majeed Makhlouf pointed out that it’s equity, rather than uniformity, that is the standard all states should try to achieve. That’s not what the state provided back then, and it’s not what Husted is providing now.

“Ohio became known as a place that didn’t really know how to run an election,” FitzGerald said. “All of us have a common duty to make sure our electoral system works for us.”

The major change at that point, and onward through the 2000s, was an expansion of early voting hours and broader access to absentee ballots.

Data is available through a study co-authored by Case Western Reserve University emeritus professor Norman Robbins and Cleveland State University urban affairs professor Mark Salling. They show that 56 percent of early voters during the 2008 general election were likely black. (The study matched addresses of early voters against Census data for race in all county neighborhoods.)

"We conclude that in Cuyahoga County, and quite probably in other counties with substantial black populations, elimination of ANY [early, in-person] voting period clearly disproportionately affects African Americans in an election similar to 2008," the authors write.

As many have pointed out, the targets of this latest round of electoral modifications are clear. The state’s recent measures are also simply a walking-back of well received expansions in voting opportunities.

“The voting problems experienced by the county’s citizens in 2004 are not a mere accident, but are the byproduct of unique conditions and needs of large, urban counties.” Such is the language drafted by Cuyahoga County Council in response to the barrage of voting restrictions cast down from Columbus. And the fact that Ohio’s largest, urban counties (Cuyahoga accounts for about 11 percent of Ohio’s population; Franklin’s a close second) boast widely Democratic-leaning voter bases is unavoidable.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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