Ohio governor, legislature seen undercutting voter rights

Zenitha Prince | 4/25/2014, 6 a.m. | Updated on 4/23/2014, 12:50 p.m.

It was a sunny March morning when Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and her small band boarded the No. 4 bus, beginning their trek from the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati to a proposed new county Board of Elections in Mount Airy.

The trip, she said, was meant to show how a decision to move early voting from downtown to the suburbs would make it extremely difficult for Hamilton County voters who didn’t have a vehicle.

“It took two buses — the second bus was late; one-and-a-half hours one way, and that doesn’t even count the time voters will spend waiting to vote; a half-mile walk, since the bus didn’t stop outside the site,” then they had to trod up a long driveway with no sidewalks since the building was situated some way off the street, Turner recalled.

“This is patently unfair,” said the lawmaker, who was joined by other Democratic colleagues and community activists. “How many hurdles should you have to jump to vote?”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, almost 13 percent of Hamilton County households — mostly in Cincinnati — do not own a vehicle, creating a potential barrier to early voting, given the relatively difficult access to the new site.

It is but one of several new laws and policies that rolls back access to the ballot box in Ohio, voting advocates say.

“Unfortunately, in the state of Ohio, our GOP-led Legislature and governor’s mansion is using their political clout to roll back the hands of time,” said Turner. “My heart hurts that we are fighting the same battles that our ancestors already fought and died for.”

The current wave of restrictive voting laws in Ohio began in 2010 when an omnibus elections law bill, HB 194, was introduced in response to the spectacular breakdown of the state’s voting system, such as the extremely long lines in the 2004 presidential election.

Among provisions in the bill were some that would cut the early voting period in half (from 35 days to 16 days) and limit the hours for early voting, cutting out Sunday altogether.

“Considering how popular early voting had become in Ohio it was a little bit shocking that the Legislature wanted to reduce early voting,” said Sonia Gill, counsel, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project.

Signatures were collected for a referendum to overturn the legislation, but lawmakers repealed the bill before voters could act.

Since 2012, however, the tide has changed, bringing a flurry of legislation that could reduce broad participation in the elections. This year, alone, the Ohio General Assembly has passed and Rebulican Gov. John Kasich has signed bills that shave days off the early voting period and completely eliminates “Golden Week,” a brief window when voters could register and vote early on the same day; prohibits anyone but Secretary of State Jon Husted from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters and makes it more difficult to count provisional ballots.

Husted has also set statewide, uniform early voting hours that contain no evening or Sunday hours, making it more difficult for working Ohioans to vote early and negating “Souls to the Polls,” an initiative of the faith community to mobilize their congregations to the polls on Sundays.