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Fight Continues Over Voting Rules Changes

Early Cuyahoga County voters in 2012. (cropped image: Bill Rice/WCPN)
Early Cuyahoga County voters in 2012. (cropped image: Bill Rice/WCPN)

The fight over changes to early voting rules took two big turns late yesterday. A House panel agreed to remove language in the Governor’s mid-term budget review that would reduce local funding to any county caught mailing out ballots on its own, in violation of state law. This was widely seen as targeting Cuyahoga County, which voted to do just that. County Executive Ed Fitzgerald yesterday also sent a letter to the Justice Department saying the change to early voting “seeks to suppress voting by urban and minority voters.”

We will hear a Republican response next, but first we’ll hear from Erin O’Brien. She is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and former Clevelander. She studied voting rules changes before and after the election of President Barack Obama. She says from 2006 to 2011 changes that constrained access to the ballot occurred almost exclusively in Republican-controlled states, and had the greatest impact on minorities. Her conclusion: that the push for these changes is grounded in race and partisan politics.

O’Brien: “Republicans have used their power in the state legislature to try to limit voter access based on the premise that where it is easier to vote legally, their opponents’ constituents don’t turn out. And so we’ve seen a really aggressive move to limit the ballot.”

Ganzer: “This is a serious accusation, and the Republicans say that there’s nothing farther from the truth, that this is all about uniformity.”

O’Brien: “I don’t buy it, because it was about fraud last time, right? That this frame, or this new way of discussing it is uniformity. If uniformity is really what we wanted, why not have uniformity where we have uniform access to the ballot with all of these things? So, the first frame was fraud and we don’t find voter fraud, it’s not going on, so all of the sudden they’ve shifted to uniformity, but that uniformity is never making it easier to vote, it’s always making it harder.”

Ganzer: “The other argument that we see is that it’s only been since 2004 that we’ve had this modern interpretation of early voting, at least in Ohio, so that to limit it or amend it in some way is not necessarily changing something that’s been in practice for many, many years for example.”

O’Brien: “Sure. If you look at the history of American elections many of us sort of perceive that it has been a steady march forward to garner the right to vote and practice it, and that is actually not borne out. It’s more of an EKG, right, where there are steps forward and then we go back, steps forward then we go back, steps forward then we go back. So first, to say that we’re having this fight is new just doesn’t match the historical record. And then to the particular idea of 2004 I would say, you know a lot of things have become new in the last 10 years and we like them. Anyone on Twitter was not on Twitter 10 years ago. Or hybrid technologies have gotten a lot better. My internet is faster. So to say that we shouldn’t have changes that make things better and more accessible and easier for people to legally vote, just doesn’t ring true to me. We’re not living in the past.”

Ganzer: “In terms of change, or where we go from here, we do have a few proposals working through the legislature, we also have the Cuyahoga County executive asking the Justice Department to look at all of these proposals and changes we are seeing. What do you think is going to happen next? Is this something that will have to be solved in the courts or at the ballot box?”

O’Brien: “I think both will go on. It has been more in the courts, especially with the courts recent decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon, money has been associated with voice in political campaigning, and what that means is the very affluent are able to exert really wildly disproportionate influence. But then part two, what’s going on with the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act and eliminating preclearance, is that states have now started to adopt this legislation that makes it harder for some voters to vote. Regular folks believe in the right to vote. And when it’s being curtailed you run the risk of mobilizing. And the Republicans are in a lot of trouble in terms of demographic change and so the Republican Party had a choice: ‘do we change our policy positions to bring in more voters that will vote for us, but typically have not been allied with us, OR, do we try to restrict access to the ballot?’ Call it fraud, call it uniformity, call it whatever they’ll call it later, and that’s what Republicans have done. They’ve opted to not change policy to bring in new groups. They’ve opted to make it harder for groups, who don’t agree with them, to vote.”

Ganzer: That was Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She maintains that her reading of voting rules changes and proposals are based on data analysis. But Matt Borges rejects O’Brien’s criticism. Borges is chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

Borges: “That’s probably one of the most uninformed statements I have heard in my life, and that’s not hyperbole. Republicans created early voting in Ohio in 2005, over the objections of every single Democrat in the Ohio legislature. An African-American Republican Secretary of State proposed early voting, a Republican legislature passed early voting with every Democrat voting no, including the current chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, and a Republican governor signed early voting into law. Now Ohio has a month of early voting, which many of our neighboring states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, have zero days of early voting. I don’t enjoy engaging in name-calling or trash-talking when it comes to someone else who is probably extraordinarily well-intended, but that is just plain stupid.”

Ganzer: “Professor O’Brien maintains that this is all data-driven, that these are not necessarily her opinions. She studied voting rules changes before and after the election of President Obama, and she says there was a real push against voter access in Battleground States including Ohio. And she says over and over this is a story of race and partisanship, that these things are passed where minorities turn out to vote.”

Borges: “Again, a strikingly dumb thing to say when you ignore the fact that it was Republicans that created early voting. In 2009, the Ohio Democrats who, for a short period of time controlled the House of Representatives passed a law that would have curtailed early voting by even more time. That was ultimately rejected by the Republican Senate in Ohio. And in 2012, the Republican Secretary of State of Ohio for the first time ever mailed an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state. How anyone could look at any data and suggest that Republicans, certainly in Ohio, have done anything but expand access to the ballot is beyond me, it’s political rhetoric, it’s nonsense, and whatever she’s looking at has misled her to a wildly misguided conclusion.”

Ganzer: “I’ve spoken to people in the African-American community, especially, about changes to Sunday voting, and they say there is at least a strong perception that they are being targeted. If this is not the case, what do you think the miscommunication is between what the Republican Party is intending and how it’s being perceived by folks especially up here in Cuyahoga County?”

Borges: “Well there’s no question that that perception is intentional, it is intentionally perpetrated by Ohio Democrats who know the truth but do not care, and for them to engage in that kind of political hyperbole and rhetoric, which is divisive and not demonstrable of the facts, that speaks more to who they are and what they represent. It really is, as you can probably tell, it’s tiring, it gets me agitated to have done all this work on behalf of expanding access to the ballot and then have folks turn around who are in fact opposing additional ballot access because they want to favor one political party, the Democrats, and then accuse us doing exactly what they’re doing.”

Ganzer: “What’s your strategy now? You admit there is a miscommunication or a misperception here of what the party is intending. What’s your next step then?”

Borges: “Here’s what we want: we want all folks to have access and opportunity to vote. We don’t want to restrict it along partisan lines like the Democrats do, because our ideas are better than theirs. We want to give everyone the chance, and so we’ll continue to fight to do that in the face of partisan attacks, nonsensical attacks, and sometimes these academic conclusions that folks reach that can only make you scratch your head.”

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.