On Wednesday, House Democrats gathered to rip Jon Husted.
They condemned the secretary of state for setting uniform hours for early, in-person voting across all 88 counties in Ohio. They deployed words and phrases such as “fake uniformity,” “drastic,” “extremists,” “suppress the vote,” “vote under attack.” They argued that urban counties are different, and that uniformity without weekend hours for voting reflects a Republican determination to dampen the turnout among blacks, harming President Obama and other Democratic candidates.
Armond Budish, the House minority leader, reasoned: “Setting uniform hours treats all county boards equally, but it treats voters unequally.” What he omitted is that such thinking calls into question practically every state election prior to 2008.
After all, Ohioans long cast ballots uniformly, the polls essentially open at the same time for everyone.
Recall what happened in 2004. The November election proved an embarrassment, Ohio the object of national ridicule and controversy for its long lines, many voters abandoning their places at the polls. In the aftermath, Democrats and Republicans worked together to make improvements. A legislature led by Republicans enacted early voting and approved no-fault absentee voting. Casting a ballot became more convenient.
In 2008, 1.7 million Ohioans took advantage of the flexibility, roughly 100,000 showing up to vote on the three days before Election Day.
Why not follow the same procedures this year? That would have been the smart thing. Unfortunately, Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere have been looking to narrow options and erect barriers, larger and smaller, often voicing concern about the phony problem of voter fraud. Here, notably, Republicans pushed and achieved legislation wiping out early voting on that final weekend.
Husted ran into trouble when county boards of elections started setting hours for other weekends during the early voting period that starts Oct. 2. In breaking board ties, he sided with fellow Republicans in Summit and other large, Democratic-leaning counties, denying early voting on weekends. Yet in some Republican-leaning suburban counties, Democrats and Republicans had agreed to establish weekend voting.
Democrats shouted their dismay about the inconsistency, the fury quickly spreading. Husted responded with a directive establishing uniform early voting hours across the state, weekdays only, no weekends, two hours added each evening in the three weeks before the election.
The secretary appeared to thread the partisan needle. Then, Democrats rallied to their new cause — counties must be treated differently!
They were spurred by a revolt in Montgomery County, two Democrats on the elections board challenging the Husted directive. They also received a boost from Doug Preisse, confidant of Gov. John Kasich, influence peddler and chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party. He sent an email message to the Columbus Dispatch, saying: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine.”
Really, actually, here was rich fuel for Democratic arguments. When Armond Budish and colleagues made their appearance, they warned about the threat to the turnout machine.
What was the turnout four years ago? Just 0.9 percent higher than in 2004. In five of the six largest urban counties, turnout declined. Franklin bucked the trend, up 6 percent. In Summit, 894 fewer ballots were cast. In Cuyahoga, 14,505.
Look at the counties in which Barack Obama outperformed John Kerry, and the leader is suburban Delaware, a 35.5 percent increase, or an additional 9,605 votes. In Cuyahoga, Obama received 2.2 percent more votes than Kerry, or an additional 9,919, where the population is more than seven times larger.
Worth adding is that Jon Husted isn’t the easy caricature. He played a leading role as a lawmaker in bringing early voting and expanded absentee voting to the state. Before issuing his directive, he consulted widely with local elections officials, plus the state attorney general.
In many ways, Husted shares the understanding of Jennifer Brunner, his Democratic predecessor. If the election machinery falters, he will feel the heat. Thus, he wants responsibility for the tough calls, alert to litigation following a tight result.
Remember Ohio isn’t Michigan, or Pennsylvania, or Missouri, or New York, or Virginia, where there is neither early voting nor no-excuse absentee voting. All told, Ohio voters will have 230 hours to vote in person before Election Day. Would weekend hours serve well? Again, yep. Still, the state faces something less than the “vote under attack.”
For the first time, as part of a compromise struck by Husted, each Ohio voter will receive an absentee ballot application in the mail. Fill it out. Send it in, and you soon can vote at home. The process may be cumbersome. It does offer a vehicle for organizing via churches, clubs or other groups — even for all six of those urban counties to boost turnout.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.