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Battle in the Battleground

A voting line in Cleveland during the 2012 election.
A voting line in Cleveland during the 2012 election.

Ohio has become the latest battleground between those who want to restrict voting rights and those who believe voting should be as accessible as possible.

The battle pits Ohio Republicans in the state legislature against Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald.

The brouhaha began in February when the Republican-controlled state legislature cut early voting, ended same-day registration, and forbade counties from mailing absentee ballots to voters, allowing only state officials to do so with approval from the legislature. At the same time, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted announced further cuts to early voting, including ending Sunday voting, which is popular among African Americans.

The immediate contentious issue was mailing absentee ballots. In 2012, more than a million Ohioans voted absentee after Husted was forced to mail ballots to all registered voters as part of an agreement with Fitzgerald, who sued when the secretary of state barred counties from mailing ballots on their own.

This week, Democrats on the Cuyahoga County Council voted to allow Fitzgerald to send absentee ballots to registered voters in the county — the most populous in Ohio and which includes the city of Cleveland. Republicans in the state legislature retaliated by saying they would add language to the state budget slashing local funding by 10 percent for any county that doesn’t follow the state’s absentee ballot law.

Fitzgerald — who is running as the Democratic candidate for governor — responded with a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting “an investigation into the State of Ohio’s latest actions to restrict citizens’ voting rights.” Fitzgerald contends the measures passed by the legislature and signed by Governor John Kasich aimed to reduce “voter participation by urban and minority voters.” At a press conference, Fitzgerald said, “If folks in Columbus think we are going to be impressed by these hardball, blackmailing tactics, they’ve got another thing coming.”

Republicans in the state capitol were the ones impressed. The county executive’s letter apparently forced them to back down, with lawmakers now saying they will scrap the proposal to cut county funds if Fitzgerald mails unsolicited absentee ballots to registered voters.

This is not an arcane local dispute with no interest outside of Ohio. Rather, it has national import for two reasons. First, Ohio is the poster child of swing states. It has eighteen electoral votes, and in 2004, the state guaranteed George W. Bush’s reelection when it gave him a two point margin over John Kerry. Since 1944, Ohioans have voted for the winner in every election except 1960, when the state went for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. Second, Ohio voters have been subjected to long lines in the last three presidential elections. In 2004, voters in black neighborhoods in Columbus waited four hours and more in the rain to vote. Fitzgerald, in his letter to Holder, said voters in Cuyahoga County experienced long lines in that election. In 2012, Ohio voters reported having to wait six hours to vote. “It seems crazy,” said one voter.

Early voting — either in person at polls open before election day or by absentee ballot — is an effective strategy to end long lines on election day, when an influx of voters often overwhelms local polling stations, especially in heavily populated counties which happen to have a large number of poor and minority residents. Fitzgerald — again, in his letter to Holder — said “the County found a real solution to these voting problems through a combination of mechanisms,” such as making registration easier, allowing early in-person voting during off hours and on weekends, and mailing absentee ballots to promote voting by mail. “The County’s citizens have come to expect and rely on the fact that they automatically receive their requests for ballots to vote by mail,” Fitzgerald wrote. “These solutions proved successful.”

Fitzgerald is right when he says “it is shameful” that state legislatures are attempting to suppress access to the polls nearly fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Law.

Apparently, Ohio Republicans fear the outcomes of elections in which every voter has access to the polls. Their answer: Change the rules to eliminate some voters, especially those likely to vote the “wrong” way.

Ed Fitzgerald thinks that’s not the American way.

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