Conservatives Move to Restrict Vote by Mail Program, Initiative Challenge Gains Momentum

Now that the future of a controversial state election law is proving uncertain, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has wasted no time in ensuring that one of the more heinous provisions of HB 194 will be implemented anyway in time for this year’s election. Following a request from Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald to weigh in on whether the county should continue its Vote by Mail program, Husted instead issued a directive ordering all 88 county boards of elections to refrain from mailing unsolicited absentee-ballot applications – a hallmark of Cuyahoga County’s successful program and a common practice across the state.

HB 194, which was enacted by the governor and scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, includes a number of disenfranchising measures, among them, a prohibition against mailing unsolicited absentee-ballot provisions to voters. However, implementation has been endangered, as state advocates mobilize to gather more than 231,000 valid signatures to place a repeal of the legislation on next year’s ballot. If successful, the law would be suspended until the public’s final decision.

Prior to Husted’s directive, officials in some counties – particularly in urban Cuyahoga and Franklin counties – had expressed interest in continuing the program if the new law was put on hold.  The vote by mail program has been crucial to alleviating the long lines at polling places that notoriously plagued the two counties in 2004. Cuyahoga has even paid the return postage for applications to encourage their return, and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald is currently reviewing whether there’s a way around Husted’s order if the county, rather than the board of elections, pays for the mass mailings. According to FitzGerald, “This is taking a step backwards in terms of ballot access... we should be doing what we can to make voting easier in Ohio.”

Husted’s directive is well-timed: creating roadblocks to electoral participation will give conservatives the edge in this fall’s election, when divisive referenda like the repeal of SB 5 – which, among other things, eliminates collective bargaining rights for public employees – will be up for a vote. It is not a coincidence that counties like Cuyahoga or Franklin that stand to lose the most from the shift in policy are traditionally progressive-leaning. In a state where Barack Obama won the popular vote 51.2% to 47.2%, Obama routed John McCain in Cuyahoga County, where he received about 70% of the vote. Similarly, Obama dominated Franklin County with 60% of the total vote.

Nor are voter suppression tactics new to these areas. In Cuyahoga County alone, 24.93% of all 2004 voters in the city of Cleveland, where John Kerry won 83% of the vote, were purged and mysterious “security” problems led to last-minute changes of voting locations in inner city Cleveland.  Other election irregularities, such as suspiciously high vote totals for third party candidates in majority African American areas, also handicapped Democrats in the county. It is no surprise that 47% of Cuyahoga County chose to bypass in-person voting entirely during the 2010 election and cast absentee mail ballots. Nearly a third of voters in Franklin County also took advantage of voting by mail in 2008 and 2010.

Interestingly, Husted claims that he was motivated by equal protection under the law.  Justifying his actions, he stated that “[giving] voters in one county greater access than voters in another county is, on its face, unfair and undermines confidence in our elections system.”  Husted is effectively crippling voting rights in parts of the state in order to achieve some semblance of uniform access. However, his concerns could just as easily have been addressed through positive election reforms, such as voter registration modernization, which are crucial to getting people from underrepresented parts of the state onto the voter rolls. Instead, this directive is simply the latest tactic from a right-wing playbook that has pushed initiatives like voter ID and a ban on Sunday voting in a thinly-veiled attempt to disenfranchise progressive Ohioans.

Full Resources from this Article

Conservatives Move to Restrict Vote by Mail Program, Initiative Challenge Gains Momentum

The Cleveland Plain Dealer - Cuyahoga County Board of Elections splits on voting-by-mail provision
Columbus Dispatch - Husted forbids unsolicited absentee-ballot mailings - Blowback from Ohio’s 2004 Stolen Election is Escalating

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