In Ohio, The Subtle - And Not-So-Subtle - Strategies of Voter Suppression

In recent days, an alarming episode has been on unfolding in Hamilton County, where I serve as a Cincinnati City Councilman. Cloaked in the guise of an administrative relocation is a Republican move aimed at voter suppression.
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As everyone knows, Presidential elections can swing on the outcome in Ohio. Voters - and votes - in the Buckeye State are courted, coveted, and counted with care.

In recent days, an alarming episode has been on unfolding in Hamilton County, where I serve as a Cincinnati City Councilman. Cloaked in the guise of an administrative relocation is a Republican move aimed at voter suppression.

It started innocuously enough when the Hamilton County Coroner requested a bigger space for the County's crime lab.

A large hospital network offered one of its former facilities to the County for a dollar. In addition to relocating the crime lab to the new site, it was also proposed to move the Board of Elections - and, with it, the site of early voting.

Sound routine and innocent? Guess again.

The proposed relocation would place in-person early voting at a site far removed from downtown with severely less access by public transportation. Whereas the current downtown location of early voting has greater bus connectivity than any site in the entire County, for the vast majority of riders the new location would require any combination of long commutes, bus transfers, hour-long waits to catch the next bus, and half-mile walks from where the bus line ends.

So say, for example, that you are poor, 75 years old, and looking after your grandchildren on Election Day. A whole lot of difficulties would be unnecessarily put between you and the ballot box for early voting. Clearly, voting by mail is available, but many voters do not trust or are not comfortable with that option. Isn't choice a healthy thing?

While none of these obstacles are insurmountable, on the heels of last week's recommendations from the President's bi-partisan commission on voting, shouldn't we as a country aspire to make voting easy and accessible for all - rather than taking deliberate steps to make it harder?

The commission's signature recommendation included establishing a standard whereby everyone should be able to cast their ballot within 30 minutes, and the commission proposed expanded early voting as key strategy for accomplishing that.

The stakes in Ohio are especially high.

In-person early voting was originally introduced in response to Election Day lines in 2004 that kept some voters waiting for 8, 10, 12, even 14 hours to cast their ballot.

After expanded early voting was introduced, in 2008, 1.7 million Ohioans chose to cast their ballot in advance of Election Day.

In 2012, in Hamilton County alone, 24,151 people voted early in-person.

We also know who is taking the opportunity to vote early. In the 2012 case Obama for America v. Husted, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that those people voting early are predominantly seniors, women, minorities, and lower-income voters.

So should people who cannot afford a car or are not physically able to operate a car have any less access to voting?

Absolutely not.

And it's a significant chunk of the population - 21.7 percent in the City of Cincinnati - that doesn't own a car, according to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

It's not difficult to understand why all of Ohio's other major counties have their Boards of Election offices in the downtown of their largest city.

One would like to think access to the ballot box would not be a partisan issue. It certainly shouldn't be, and it doesn't have to be.

I introduced a Resolution to Cincinnati's City Council last week which opposed moving early voting to the much less accessible location outside downtown. The Resolution passed unanimously with support from both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, the top Republican vote-getter on Council said during the public meeting, "It's going to make it more difficult for all voters. It's the wrong place."

Regrettably, the four board members of the Hamilton County Board of Elections split 2-2 along party lines, which means that according to law, the tie must now be broken by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Yeah - that Jon Husted.

The same Jon Husted involved in trying to take away the final three days of early voting in 2012, which are the busiest three days of the early voting period.

The same Jon Husted who has already reduced voting hours in the current election cycle.

The same Jon Husted who prompted a Federal judge to note "the surreptitious manner in which the secretary [Husted] went about implementing [a] last minute change to the election rules."

This is the Jon Husted who will now break the tie, as early as tomorrow.

Meanwhile, one of the Republicans on the Hamilton County Board of Elections continues to say that the 24,151 people who voted early in 2012 really isn't that big a number - knowing full well who those voters are.

In Ohio, every voter matters. A lot.

And Ohioans of all political stripes must remain vigilant. While efforts to suppress the vote sometimes surface in ways ugly and visible, more subtle but no less deliberate attempts - such as moving the site of early voting - can also produce troublingly un-democratic outcomes.

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