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Published: Sunday, 11/25/2012

Ohio’s election machinery needs an overhaul

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

A few final thoughts about this year’s election (I swear this is the last time):

Actually, these observations deal more with future statewide elections, and no one wants to think about them just now either. But we still need to address big problems with the way Ohio conducts its elections, which threaten the constitutional principle of one person/one vote.

The number of provisional ballots Ohioans cast, because they voted at the wrong polling place or attracted questions about their address or registration, must be reduced. Rules for early voting in person need to be clarified and expanded, not restricted further.

Above all, the hideously unrepresentative, partisan process by which the state draws districts for the U.S. House and General Assembly remains to be scrapped and replaced with something better and fairer.

First the good news: The nightmare didn’t become real. Ohio wasn’t Florida 2000. The presidential election didn’t turn on disputed ballots in our battleground state, delaying a final result for weeks. That may have been because President Obama won Ohio with unexpected ease over Mitt Romney, but so be it.

Voting problems didn’t affect the final outcome in Ohio, but they occurred. Voters in some parts of the state had to stand in line for hours on Election Day; some machines broke down. As Mr. Obama observed, “we have to fix that.” Any county board of elections that consistently prepares for or administers voting on Election Day incompetently doesn’t deserve to keep that responsibility.

Again this election, more than 200,000 ballots were thrown into provisional limbo, to be counted late — or discarded — by election boards. Poorly trained poll workers are still referring too many voters to the wrong location, or recording incorrect or incomplete information for provisional ballots.

And some of the state’s rules for filing provisional ballots appear unnecessarily rigid and complicated. It’s time to resolve these issues.

To help alleviate long lines on Election Day, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted deserves credit for agreeing to send an application for a mail absentee ballot to nearly every registered voter. But that gesture, however important, offers no excuse for restricting Ohioans’ ability to vote early in person.

This year, Mr. Husted and other Republican officials sought to limit such voting on the three days before Election Day to members of the military. A lawsuit by the Obama campaign led to a federal court ruling that opened last-minute early voting to all Ohioans, although new restrictions on night and weekend early voting before the final weekend were allowed to stand.

About 105,000 Ohioans voted in person during the last three days of early voting. That number also roughly represents President Obama’s margin of victory in the state. That may not be a coincidence, given what we know about who tends to vote on those days, notably minority and urban voters. It may help explain why Republicans were so determined to limit that voting.

You can argue plausibly that Ohio’s five-week early voting period is too long. But as long as it’s the law, all Ohioans should have ample opportunity throughout that time frame to vote in person — and that includes evenings and weekends.

Now, though, some Republican state lawmakers — still asserting voter fraud that doesn’t exist — are trying to ram through voting “reform” legislation during the post-election lame-duck session that would make early voting and voter registration harder. That attempt should be seen as the vote-suppression effort it is, and rejected.

Even more urgent is the need to reform Ohio’s blatantly rigged system of political districting. In a state where President Obama and Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown won more than half the vote this month, Republicans took 12 of Ohio’s 16 U.S. House seats and enhanced their already lopsided control of the General Assembly. That wasn’t just an anomaly; GOP gerrymandering largely dictated these outcomes.

True, voters trounced the statewide ballot proposal that would have taken the redistricting process away from the political parties and given it to an independent citizens’ commission. But opponents of Issue 2 who insisted there’s a better way to handle reapportionment now have the opportunity — and the obligation — to tell us what that alternative is. That responsibility especially devolves on the panel of supposed experts appointed by lawmakers to propose ways to modernize the state constitution.

After this month’s election, Secretary Husted told me he wants to try to revive interest in a bipartisan redistricting proposal he developed when he was speaker of the Ohio House. The plan went nowhere in the General Assembly, because both parties were more intent on pursuing winner-take-all strategies. But it’s better than the intolerable status quo.

Mr. Husted’s proposal would make the state Apportionment Board responsible for drawing congressional district boundaries — a task now handled by the legislature — as well as General Assembly districts, which the board oversees now. It would expand the board from five members to seven, to include at least two members of the minority party in Columbus. And it would require at least two minority-party votes to approve any redistricting plan.

Mr. Husted argues that his proposal also would require political districts to be competitive and compact, to reflect the rights of minority voters, and to be more representative of all voters than the current system.

Columbus Republicans have no incentive to compromise now on redistricting, and Democrats have no leverage to force them to do so. But lawmakers who opposed Issue 2 because they insisted it offered the wrong approach to reform should at least be willing to place Mr. Husted’s plan before voters.

However the state chooses to address all of these issues, the bias needs to be in favor of expanding, not restricting, Ohioans’ access to the ballot box, and of inspiring confidence that their votes will count. As long as we maintain that emphasis, we’ll be fine.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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