Suppressing the vote

8/21/2008

NATIONALLY and in Ohio, the Republican Party has a long and shameful history of suppressing the vote to gain partisan advantage in elections, mostly by targeting minorities. Now they're at it again, with complaints about a law written, ironically, by GOP operatives in the General Assembly.

The law, which took effect at the beginning of 2006, created a five-day window at the end of September during which Ohioans will be able to register to vote, then immediately cast their ballot under provisions that allow both "no fault" absentee voting along with early voting, starting 35 days before the traditional Nov. 4 Election Day.

Republicans now claim the statute constitutes an "illegal loophole" that raises the threat of election fraud. But the law was in use in 2006 without problems and it wasn't an issue until Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign announced a push to take advantage of it among the state's 470,000 college students.

One poll suggests that Senator Obama holds a 2-to-1 edge among 18 to 34 year olds. Such a margin, if matched by big turnout, could turn Ohio, a swing state, in favor of the Democratic candidate. Unless the Republicans have their way.

Suppressing the vote harks back to the poll taxes and faux citizenship tests in the post-Civil War era that were employed to prevent newly enfranchised blacks from voting.

In more recent times, another tactic was to spread the ominous word in black precincts before Election Day that anyone showing up to vote just might risk arrest if they happen to have any outstanding warrants.

The latest versions of vote suppression have the same goal but utilize less-blatant devices. They include legalization of practices aimed at thwarting certain groups that might not vote Republican (see the op-ed piece, "Caging the electorate," on the following page); unnecessarily confusing directives on registration and voting like the ones issued in 2004 by then-Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, and lawsuits, which GOP functionaries in Columbus are threatening now.

Fortunately, current Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, has set out to enforce the law - as written by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor, Bob Taft. Last week, Ms. Brunner issued a directive requiring county election boards to adopt uniform procedures for early voting. If it's followed rigorously, there should be no major problems and certainly no fraud.

Election officials will have at least 30 days to verify that new registrants are eligible, which should provide plenty of time to ensure that only legal ballots are counted after the polls close the evening of Nov. 4.

Stringent enforcement of carefully crafted election procedures is necessary if Ohio is to overcome an unfortunate reputation in recent years for voting that is tilted to favor one political party or the other. The whole purpose of elections in a democratic society is to make sure that every legal vote is cast and counted, not to find ways to cheat people out of their right as citizens.