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Ohio Republicans Try to Overrule Bush v. Gore

August 15, 2012

Usually when one party tries to rig voting rules to favor itself over the other party, it makes at least an effort to present its rule-rigging as something else.  So when Republicans say that labor unions shouldn’t be allowed to contribute to political campaigns without the consent of union members, they dress up their effort to suppress union activism as an effort to give union members control over their own dues money.  Ohio Republicans this summer made the most blatant effort in decades to suppress minority votes, and they didn’t even bother to dress it up nice.  Funny thing is, it was so blatant that even Ohio Republicans were embarrassed into giving it up.

It seems that Ohio has a thing called “early voting,” which means that polling places aren’t just open on Election Day – they’re also open in the two weeks leading up to Election Day.  The issue at hand is whether “early voting” should be available only during business hours during the lead-up to Election Day, or whether “early voting” should also be available into the evenings.  (I suppose that would be late early voting.)

It seems also that Ohio organizes its election boards by county, each board being equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, with tie votes being broken by whoever happens to be Ohio’s Secretary of State at the time.  Just now, Ohio’s Secretary of State is Republican Jon Husted.

County election boards across Ohio have been voting on whether to extend early voting hours.  Democratic board members have been voting “aye” in every county.  Republican board members have been voting “aye” in counties that lean Republican, and “nay” in counties that lean Democratic.  And Secretary Husted has been exercising his power to break ties to side in every case with the Republicans who voted against extended early voting hours in Democratic-leaning counties.

Now in fairness, we need to concede that while Democratic election board members may be voting for the principle that the voting booth should be accessible to all, they are also voting for their partisan interests.  As a general matter, conventional wisdom goes, the voting demographics most likely to have difficulty getting to the polls are Democratic-leaning demographics – the poor who might not have easy access to transportation, those who might be working two jobs, single parents with child care responsibilities, workers with night jobs, and so on.

But there really isn’t any question that Republican board members are voting solely for their partisan interests, and there’s just no principle they can dress their vote up in to make it look nice.

The New York Times, noting the heavy disproportion of African-American voters in counties that were denied extended early voting hours, called the situation “overt discrimination.”  It is the kind of thing that was shocking fifty years ago when it happened in Alabama – so shocking that Congress passed a law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to put an end to it.  Two generations later, it’s all the more shocking.

The situation in Ohio brought to my mind the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore – the case that gave George W. Bush Florida’s Electoral College votes, and therefore the 2000 presidential election.  The five-justice majority in that case concluded that Florida’s manual recount procedures were inconsistent from county to county.  (Remember hanging chads, pregnant chads, dimpled chads?)  The justices determined that county-by-county variations in something as important as counting votes is a denial of constitutionally guaranteed “equal protection of the laws.”

Now you can disagree with the justices whether there was in fact an important variation in recount procedures in Florida, and you can disagree whether ending the recount and declaring Bush the winner was the right remedy if there was such a variation.  But presumably we can all agree that arbitrary differences in voting procedures among counties that are theoretically applying the same state’s voting laws, is not “equal protection of the laws.”

Turns out, as of this afternoon, even Secretary Husted seems to agree.  He announced that he will be imposing a state-wide rule requiring early voting to be open until 7 p.m.

Husted won election to his Secretary of State position by a considerable margin in the Republican wave of 2010.  But he had something of a quirky political history even before this incident.  He helped gut a 2006 bill to enhance the rights of victims of pedophilia, reputedly after being lobbied by the Catholic Church.  Although he apparently was born in Michigan and adopted by an Ohio couple as an infant, Husted has at times claimed that he was born in Ohio.  His claim of residence in his Ohio House district was subjected to considerable doubt in 2008, when six weeks of newspapers were found on his front porch, and cobwebs on his front window.

All in all, there are good reasons for Ohio Democrats to look long and hard for a strong candidate for Secretary of State in 2014.

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