Ohio GOP Admits Early Voting Cutbacks Are Racially Motivated

Earlier this month I reported how Ohio Republicans were limiting early voting hours in Democratic counties, while expanding them on nights and weekends in Republican counties.

In response to the public outcry, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who intervened in favor of limiting early voting hours in Democratic counties, issued a statewide directive mandating uniform early voting hours in all eighty-eight Ohio counties. Husted kept early voting hours from 8 am to 5 pm on weekdays from October 2 to 19 and broadened hours from 8 am to 7 pm from October 22 to November 2. But he refused to expand early voting hours beyond 7 pm during the week, on weekends or three days prior to the election (which is being challenged in court by the Obama campaign)—when it is most convenient for many working Ohioans to vote. Rather than expanding early voting hours across the state, Husted limited them for everybody. Voter suppression for all!

Montgomery County, Ohio—which includes Dayton—is now at the center of the early voting fight. (Obama won Montgomery County by 6 percent in 2008). On two separate occasions, December 28, 2011, and August 6, 2012, the four-member county board of elections unanimously approved expanded weekday and weekend early voting hours. But in a meeting on August 17, the two Republicans on the board reversed their position and opposed expanding early voting hours. With the committee deadlocked between Democratic and Republican members, Husted broke the tie in favor of the GOP, like he’s done in Cleveland, Columbus, Akron and Toledo.

Yet before breaking the tie, Husted ordered Democratic board members Tom Ritchie Sr. and Dennis Lieberman to hold a new meeting and rescind their votes in favor of early voting. When they refused, arguing that Husted’s directive did not apply to weekend voting, Husted suspended them from the county board of elections. (A third of the 28,000 in-person early voters in Montgomery County in 2008 voted on the weekend.)

“There’s no reason in the world for him to do what he’s doing to us other than to suppress the vote,” Ritchie, who’s served on the board of elections since 1995, told me. At a hearing in Columbus today, Husted’s office will decide whether Ritchie and Lieberman will be permanently suspended. “I fully expect that me and my fellow board member will be removed,” says Ritchie. (UPDATE: a ruling is expected later this week.) If that’s the case, Ritchie and Lieberman plan to appeal their suspension to the Ohio Supreme Court. (He also believes that Husted’s order that the board hold a second meeting on August 17 violated Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, which requires that a government body give twenty-four-hour notice to the media and general public in advance of a public meeting.)

Llyn McCoy, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, says she was not consulted about Husted’s directive—despite his claim that he sought the input of local election officials before making his decision—and was “surprised” by the suspension of Ritchie and Lieberman. “I don’t see why Husted got into this ‘you voted, now you’re suspended’ kind of thing,” McCoy says. “The secretary of state was trying to send a message that he wasn’t going to tolerate any extended hours.”

Husted’s drastic action marks a dark day for democracy in Ohio. “Historically, the Montgomery County Board of Elections has been very well-run and is widely viewed as one of the best board of elections in the state,” says Ellis Jacobs, an attorney with the nonpartisan Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition. “The board of elections planned ahead to maximize voters’ access to the polls and now they’re being punished by the secretary of state for doing their job so well.”

Why do Ohio Republicans suddenly feel so strongly about limiting early voting hours in Democratic counties? Franklin County (Columbus) GOP Chair Doug Preisse gave a surprisingly blunt answer to the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.” Preisse is not some rogue operative but the chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio’s second-largest county and a close adviser to Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Like Pennsylvania House majority leader Mike Turzai, who said his state’s voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” Preisse said publicly what many Republicans believe privately—keeping turnout down among Obama supporters is the best way for the GOP to win the 2012 election. That’s why, since the 2010 election, Republicans have devoted so much energy to voter-suppression efforts like limiting early voting hours, restricting voter registration drives, passing voter ID laws, disenfranchising ex-felons and purging the voter rolls.

Cutbacks to early voting disproportionately disenfranchise African-American voters in Ohio. African-Americans comprise 21 percent of the population in Franklin and Montgomery counties and 28 percent in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County but accounted for 31 percent, 52 percent and 56 percent of early voters in the respective counties in 2008. (Nearly half of early voters in Franklin County in 2008 did so on nights or weekends.)

Now it’ll be harder for voters across Ohio, particularly in the most populous, heavily Democratic cities, to find a convenient time to vote before Election Day in order to avoid the long lines that plagued the state in 2004 and may have cost John Kerry the election. “In the hours and days now eliminated by legislative and Sec. of State restrictions, an estimated 197,000 Early In-Person votes were cast, constituting about 3.4% of all votes cast statewide in 2008,” according to a new report by Norman Robbins, research director for Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates. “This is very significant in Ohio where major elections have often been decided by a 2% margin of victory.”

Republicans were for reforms like early voting until Democrats started using them. “It just so happened that [2008] was the first time that early voting had been used in large numbers to mobilize African American and Latino voters,” Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Huffington Post. A federal court ruled on Thursday that early voting cutbacks in Florida—where blacks outnumbered whites by two to one among early voters in 2008—violated the Voting Rights Act. As Doug Preisse admitted on Sunday, Republicans are doing everything in their power to make sure 2012 isn’t a repeat of 2008.