While there’s more time to vote in Ohio before any given election than most states and an above average Election Day wait time of 2.4 minutes, Ohio ranks lower than most states when it comes to voter registration and voter turnout rate, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust study looking at the four even-year elections from 2008 to 2014.
Ohio is “in most respects somewhere in the middle” when it comes to voting laws, said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “We fall pretty square in the middle in this whole equation.”
The Republican-dominated legislature in recent years has toughened laws that they say protect the integrity of the voting process. But some believe the efforts have served to suppress voter turnout, particularly in minority areas.
The voting system in the country varies from state to state. Though the Pew Charitable Trust attempts it, comparing states in election laws is difficult, said Dan Diorio, an elections policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Wendy Underhill, also an elections policy specialist with the NCSL, said running an election is like Santa Claus planning weddings.
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“Election officials make check lists, and like Santa Claus they check them twice,” she said. “And there’s a huge amount of planning and it’s like running multiple weddings all on the same day.”
Voting in Ohio forever changed in 2005 when the state’s then-Republican-led legislature instituted no-fault early voting and “Golden Week,” when voters could register and vote in the first week of voting.
Fast forward a decade later and that same party, according to Democrats, have taken away some of those voting rights. While it’s not the only voting-related legal challenge pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other, the two major political parties are in a legal fight to determine if a 2014 law is a way to suppress votes of minorities and low-income citizens, or if it’s securing the state’s voting system where, as Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said, it’s “easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
State Republican lawmakers in 2014 approved Senate Bill 238 which reduced early voting by a week, thus eliminating “Golden Week.”
The state law was overturned in federal court in May and that case was overturned by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals just last month. Now the matter will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which the justices were split 4-4 on a move to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification requirement. That tie meant the lower court’s ruling stood.
A 4-4 split Ohio’s case means that 2014 law stands as supported in the 2-1 decision by the 6th Circuit’s federal judicial panel.
Elections changed in Ohio after the 2004 presidential election. Ohio voters experienced long lines, some waiting for hours to cast their ballot. And Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper gives Republicans in 2004, who were led by then-Ohio Speaker of the House Jon Husted, credit when they made the changes that opened up the ease of voting to more in Ohio.
However, Pepper said for the past few years today’s Republican-led legislature is trying to undo that.
“Courts have looked at the claims of people about voter fraud, and even (President George W.) Bush (judicial) appointees have found there has been no fraud,” he said.
VOTER FRAUD OR NOT
Though Democrats argue the 2014 voting law changes make it harder for certain populations to vote, Republicans argue Ohioans can cast ballots at home with no-fault early voting and beginning in 2017 voters can register to vote online, something Husted calls a “valuable new tool.”
“Online voter registration is easy for voters, effective in fighting voter fraud and less costly than paper registrations alone,” Husted said.
Democrats dispute voter fraud exists to the extent Republicans have claimed in the modern voting age, and local political scientists say it rarely happens.
But in close local elections — elections that have a greater impact on citizens — “it’s not a usual occurrence, but in a close race at the local level, it matters,” said Mack Mariani, a political science professor with Xavier University.
There were more than 100 elections decided by one vote or tied in the past six statewide elections, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.
As it stands today, Ohioans have 28 days to vote before any given election and 13 hours to cast a ballot on Election Day.
Husted said “politically motivated lawsuits” by “un-elected federal judges,” the only thing accomplished is “chaos and voter confusion.”
“Partisan plaintiffs who have challenged these democratically passed laws are attempting to claim victory,” Husted said. “The sad reality is that much of Ohio’s election laws are no longer made by their elected representatives.”
Ohio is one of 27 states and the District of Columbia with early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. There are another seven states with early voting and three states — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — which have all-mail voting, and they’re one of 34 states with some type of voter identification law.
‘A SALES PITCH’
Close to a third of the states offer same-day voter registration, which Mariani said “does make it possible to bring people to the poll who aren’t registered, and they’re probably the least likely people to show up.”
“Certainly that’s the argument, when you make voting harder for the people who area on the outside of the political system,” he said. “Maybe they’re less-educated voters, maybe they’re voters with less flexibility because of their schedule. Traditionally that’s had a racial component.”
Miami University Hamilton political science professor John Forren said there are “practical consequences” to the making of changes in voting access rules — “and those consequences are not likely to be felt equally by both major parties.”
“Generally speaking, expanded voting access tends to favor Democrats, while more restrictive voter access policies tend to help Republicans,” he said. “And this general tendency is hardly a secret to those on both sides of debates over issues.”
And Niven said though the 2014 voting law changes in Ohio will in the long run make it harder for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck and minorities, but for now “it’s a sales pitch to encourage people to vote” and has been used as “an organizing principle” to rally Democrats and left-leaning voters.