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Published: Friday, 2/28/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

Cuyahoga County may fight voting changes

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Ohio’s largest county plans a direct showdown with the state over new limits to early voting and a prohibition on the mass mailing of absentee voter ballots to registered voters.

Cuyahoga County’s top executive happens to be Gov. John Kasich’s leading Democratic opponent in November, Ed FitzGerald. The county isn’t planning a federal lawsuit yet, but it’s starting to lay the groundwork by gathering data from the state’s six largest counties, including Lucas, to show how it says such laws disproportionately affect urban and minority voters.

On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled General Assembly sent Mr. Kasich the third bill in a week that would affect the Nov. 4 general election.

“Governor Kasich and Secretary [of State Jon] Husted’s actions will make it harder for working men and women to cast their votes this November,” Mr. FitzGerald said. “With Ohioans facing so many other urgent challenges, it is inexplicable that some elected officials are so clearly focused on cutting back voting rights.”

He was joined by state Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland), Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

If Mr. Kasich signs the latest bill, Ohio will have new laws on the books reducing the absentee and in-person early voting window from 35 days to 29 before the election, placing new restrictions on absentee ballots and last-resort provisional ballots, and prohibiting any public official except the secretary of state from mass mailing applications for absentee ballots.

In the absence of a law setting hours for county boards of election for in-person early voting, Republican Secretary of State Husted recently issued a directive establishing a statewide uniform schedule.

“The secretary’s goal is that every voter has the same opportunity to vote a ballot,” said Husted spokesman Matt McClellan. “It shouldn’t matter where you live in the state. You should have the same access.”

In-person early voting would be largely restricted to weekdays with no night hours. Exceptions would be partial days the last two Saturdays before the election. Such voting would end at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 1. The directive was based on advice from the bipartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials.

“While Ohio Republicans have been longtime and consistent champions of accessible and fair elections, Democrats like Ed FitzGerald are quick to jump at political opportunities at the expense of Ohio voters,” said Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf.

“If Ed FitzGerald did his homework before threatening frivolous lawsuits at the expense of Cuyahoga County taxpayers, he’d find that in 2005 it was Ohio Democrats who opposed early voting and it was our Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell who proposed early voting, a Republican legislature that passed it, and a Republican governor who signed it into law,” he said.

Mr. FitzGerald announced he would introduce legislation at the next county council meeting March 11 to proceed with mass- mailing absentee ballot applications as well as a declaration that protecting voter rights is one of the duties of the new council.

This isn’t the first time Mr. FitzGerald has balked at new voting rules. In 2011, he announced his office was going to mass-mail 2012 absentee ballot applications to Cuyahoga voters to get around a directive issued by Mr. Husted prohibiting boards of election from doing so. Lucas County had also done mass mailings in the past in an effort to reduce demand on the system on Election Day.

In the end, he and Mr. Husted reached a settlement. The secretary of state instead used federal funds to do a statewide mailing, and he has already announced he plans to do the same this year.

Two other election-related bills passed last year have been placed on hold by federal courts for this election cycle. One imposed new restrictions on the Libertarian, Green, and other minor parties’ access to Ohio’s ballot. The other imposed new rules on the gathering of signatures for ballot issues.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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