Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, under growing pressure to resolve a contentious dispute over whether counties should have extra evening and weekend voting hours this fall, on Tuesday told The Enquirer he is moving toward a statewide order on the politically charged issue.
Husted, who previously has said he preferred to leave that issue in the hands of Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections, said in an interview that he has asked Ohio Attorney Gen. Mike DeWine to determine whether he has the authority, “which I believe I do,” to impose a statewide plan on possible extra in-person voting hours starting Oct. 2. DeWine has promised to resolve the legal question quickly, Husted said.
Husted did not specify how potentially expansive or restrictive any statewide policy he establishes might be, saying only that he would seek a formula “in the best interest of all 88 counties.”
The move comes as the partisan divide between which Ohio counties will have extra night and weekend voting hours this fall and which won’t is growing, at least as things stand currently.
An Enquirer analysis shows that major urban counties where Husted prevented extra hours in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6 are ones that in 2008 collectively gave then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama nearly a 500,000-vote bulge.
Nine other counties that have approved additional early night and weekend hours – decisions made without Husted’s involvement – handed U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, a surplus of roughly 90,000 votes four years ago.
In plans submitted last month to Husted’s office, another 16 counties – most of which traditionally vote Republican – also indicated preliminary proposals to add extra voting hours this fall. Those plans, though, could be changed by the local boards of elections or a Husted directive.
“I’ve been consistent in seeking uniformity,” said Husted, who in recent weeks cast tie-breaking votes blocking extra hours in major urban counties that generally vote Democratic even as some GOP-leaning counties were extending their early voting timetables.
“It’s my critics who have been inconsistent,” Husted added. “One moment they’re for local control. The next they’re for state control, depending on the outcome they’d like to achieve.”
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke says his objective is a simple one: “We just want a fair, balanced fight.
“I’m not sure we’re going to get it,” Burke said. “It’s pretty clear what’s going on.”
Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and, like Burke, a member of the county elections board, dismisses that charge as a Democratic attempt to “demonize Republicans as trying to suppress the vote when the opposite is true.”
“The Democrats are playing politics with the voting rights issue, but we’re not taking the bait,” Triantafilou said.
Amid increasingly strident rhetoric on both sides, the early voting issue will come to a head locally on Thursday at the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
Husted’s disclosure to The Enquirer late Tuesday, however, envelops that meeting in uncertainty given that a later statewide order could trump any action by the elections board.
Earlier, local and statewide political leaders suggested that the issue could end up in court if the outcome in Hamilton County was the same as that seen in recent weeks in Ohio’s other biggest counties, with a 2-2 board tie being resolved by Husted siding with fellow Republicans against extended hours.
“What we have here is unconstitutional suppression of voting rights right before our eyes,” Ohio Sen. Eric Kearney, D-North Avondale, said Tuesday at a Downtown news conference outside the board of elections. Husted disputes that interpretation, arguing that he views extended voting hours as costly and unnecessary in light of a new program under which every registered voter in Ohio this fall will receive an absentee ballot application, giving individuals more than 750 hours to vote from home.
“We’ve gone from Election Day to election month,” Triantafilou said.
That explanation, however, is unpersuasive to a chorus of critics demanding that Husted establish uniform statewide rules expanding evening and weekend voting hours. Even among the counties with early voting plans, there are differences in the days and hours when local boards of elections would be kept open past normal business hours.
The Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus, the African American Ministers Leadership Council and U.S. Rep. Timothy Ryan, D-Niles, are among those urging Husted to eliminate existing disparities widely perceived as tilting the electoral playing field to give Republicans a significant edge in November.
Secretary has played pivotal role in decisions
The difference in early in-person absentee voting hours this fall among Ohio’s counties – all of which have boards of elections comprising two Republicans and two Democrats – stems from Husted’s decisive role to date in some and noninvolvement in others.
In four urban counties – Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus), Summit (Akron) and Lucas (Toledo) – the elections boards deadlocked, with Democrats favoring the extra hours and Republicans opposing them. Each time, Husted voted against additional night and weekend voting hours, saying he did not want to further burden already strained local budgets through staff overtime and that the statewide absentee applications will create ample opportunities for early voting. In 2008, those four counties voted for Obama by lopsided ratios of up to more than 2-to-1, favoring the Democrat overall by 491,485 ballots over McCain. Those counties also are home to 56 percent of Ohio’s black population, according to the African American ministers’ group.
“Jim Crow is alive in the 21st century,” said the Rev. Tony Minor of Cleveland, referring to segregationist laws common in the South prior to the civil rights movement.
At least nine other counties, including Butler and Warren in Southwest Ohio, already have adopted plans for additional early voting hours. Because there was no partisan disagreement in those counties, there were no tie votes to place before Husted, leaving those plans intact. Those nine counties in 2008 collectively favored McCain by 87,766 votes over Obama, although two – Montgomery (Dayton) and Portage, southeast of Cleveland – were in the Democrat’s column.
Gregory Gantt, the Republican chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said while the board amicably worked out the voting hours issue this year, it was not always that way in the past. “We had our 2-2 battle a couple of years ago,” Gantt said, laughing. “So we went another way this year.”
Although he supported Montgomery County’s extra evening and weekend voting hours, Gantt said he appreciates Husted’s overarching position on the matter. “Do you want us to go out to physically pick up every person and then drive them to vote?” Gantt said. “You have to balance that against cost, logistics and need.”
Early absentee voting does not begin until early October, 35 days before the Nov. 6 election. So Husted said even assuming DeWine clears the path legally, he intends to spend more time weighing the various facets before announcing his decision. By then, a related federal lawsuit in which the Obama campaign is seeking to restore early voting during the final 72 hours before the election – a period closed when the GOP-controlled legislature eliminated voting on the final Saturday, Sunday and Monday except for military personnel – may be resolved. Husted hopes to factor that decision into any directive.
“I’ve got a lot of moving parts,” Husted said. “That’s why a rush to judgment … doesn’t make sense for anyone.”