Protecting the right to vote is more urgent today than at any time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet Ohio is making it harder for its citizens to exercise their right to vote.
A new state law eliminates the “golden week” when voters could register and vote early in one stop at their local board of elections. At the same time, a recent official directive from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted prohibits counties from offering early voting opportunities after work hours and on Sundays.
Last week, a federal judge ordered Ohio to restore the last three days of early voting before Election Day. But many of the state’s cuts to early voting are still in place.
Who would be hurt most by these changes? During the 2008 election in Cuyahoga County, African-Americans voted early and in person at a rate 26 times greater than for white voters. An analysis of the 2012 election by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found similar results.
Cutting back these opportunities will require state officials to defend their actions from claims that they have crossed the line of violating the Voting Rights Act and related federal protections. Ohio officials face a lawsuit by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that challenges the reduction in early voting hours.
The state restrictions harken back to Ohio’s notorious 2004 election, which was plagued by widespread failures that were foreseeable and preventable. Voters in many Ohio precincts that year had to wait 2 to 12 hours. In Columbus alone, more than 10,000 voters were disenfranchised by the state’s failure to provide adequate election facilities.
After the 2004 election, the Lawyers’ Committee, working with the League of Women Voters of Ohio, sued then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell to force state officials to provide fair and uniform voting opportunities. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling that enabled Mr. Blackwell’s successor, Jennifer Brunner, to work out a comprehensive settlement.
That agreement ensured uniformity and consistency in Ohio election procedures by promoting pre-election planning, improving the recruitment and training of election officials and poll workers, and increasing accountability for election administrators. Also in response to the 2004 debacle, the General Assembly expanded opportunities for early voting and no-fault absentee voting.
Yet today’s decision-makers in Ohio are taking a great leap backward. The proponents of the restrictive voting procedures are hard-pressed to point to any actual problem that the measures address. These officials would act more responsibly by correcting Ohio’s real voting problems.
In 2012, thousands of applications for absentee ballots were rejected across the state, because a data-sharing glitch between the Secretary of State’s Office and the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles caused many county boards of elections to have out-of-date voter registration information. State lawmakers made no attempt to correct or even examine this failure, as if it had never occurred.
Ohio is not alone in adopting regressive voting practices. Other states have enacted voting laws and procedures that restrict or place additional burdens on voters, while neglecting real election problems.
Long lines and other administrative deficiencies continue to limit voting opportunities. Racial discrimination in voting remains an issue. Widespread problems with the 2012 election, more than a decade after the 2000 presidential election debacle, provided a vivid reminder that these matters have not been solved.
The 2012 election also brought national attention to a wave of restrictive voting laws and practices in a number of states. Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder effectively suspended federal review of voting changes in jurisdictions with the worst history of racial discrimination in voting.
Ohio can and should do better. The state’s leaders again need to make the best interests of Ohio voters their priority.
Barbara Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington.