Voters’ Fate and the Buckeye State

In their reporting on the 2004 contest, authors Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis make a compelling argument that Republicans stole the race when they turned what was in reality a narrow 4-percent John Kerry victory into a narrower 2-percent win for George W. Bush.

Working in concert with Bush advisor and fellow ideologue Karl Rove, Ohio secretary of state and chief elections officer Kenneth Blackwell presided over the 2004 election. After losing the Ohio governor’s race in 2006, Blackwell moved on to become a Republican party official. When progressive Democrat Jennifer Brunner succeeded him as secretary of state, she hired a consulting firm to audit the state’s voting systems. The firm found “critical security systems failures that could impact the integrity of an election.” Before making a bad political decision to run for the U.S. Senate, Brunner focused on reworking the architecture of Ohio’s election machinery.

As it turned out, Brunner did more for fair elections in Ohio after she was out of office. Barack Obama cannot be reelected in 2012 without Ohio’s 20 electoral votes. If he is reelected, he will owe a debt to Brunner.

In fact, every Democrat working to repeal the “voter reform” laws passed by Republican Legislatures since 2007 is indebted to Brunner, who ran the first successful campaign outside the legal system to overturn a voter-suppression law enacted by a state legislature.

Ohio’s H.B. 194 imposed drastic restrictions on early voting by mail and in person; prohibited voting on Saturday afternoons, Sundays, and in the three days before the election; and stopped counties from mailing unsolicited absentee-ballot applications to voters. Perversely, the bill would have prohibited a poll worker from telling a voter that he is in the wrong precinct and directing him to the correct one.

Democrats read the bill as an effort to steal another election, this time by creating obstacles for Democratic voters.

In fact, just one of the half-dozen measures in the law, the restrictions on early voting, would have drastically decreased Democratic turnout. In the top 10 precincts Obama carried in 2008—all of them in Dayton and all voting 98 percent Democratic—early voting made up 29 percent of all votes cast. In the top 10 precincts that John McCain carried, all in rural or suburban areas, only 2.4 percent of ballots were cast before Election Day.

Brunner directed a Fair Elections Ohio coalition campaign that collected more than 300,000 signatures, suspended the law, and placed it on the November ballot as a referendum item.

The campaign put Ohio back into play for Obama for 2012. But overturning voter-suppression laws in states where the referendum process isn’t available will be more difficult.

The NAACP, the ACLU, and the AFL-CIO have organized in opposition to the voter-ID laws enacted last year throughout the country, and thousands took to the streets in New York City on December 10 to protest voter suppression. But New York is a long way from the solid Republican majorities in Texas, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi, where the most restrictive laws were passed. Ultimately, most of the decisions will be made by federal judges.

In Florida, the swing state that provided the finale to the Bush–Gore showdown, the League of Women Voters and the ACLU filed suit in federal court in December to overturn new restrictions on voter registration drives. Rock the Vote (a national organization that registers younger voters) and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund have signed on to the same suit.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning had already provided liberal advocacy groups an avenue to challenge those restrictions in October, when he sued the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows “interested parties” to intervene.

There was no scarcity of interested parties in Florida. The state conference of NAACP Branches, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Council of La Raza, and the League Women Voters have been certified as parties to the case, which will address the most extreme provisions in the Florida bill.

In Texas, a state that swings only one way, Republican Attorney General Gregg Abbott filed a preclearance suit in January, defending the voter-ID law that passed last year. Interested parties haven’t yet had time to register and qualify as interveners on the side of the Justice Department.

“There is lot of interest,” said Texas ACLU Legal Director Lisa Graybill, who expects that several public interest law firms and advocacy groups will join the lawsuit. “The 2012 elections are going to be significant and the degree of turnout and voter suppression will be significant long after 2012.”

Sidebar: ID, Please: Planes, Drugs & Voting Law

“Americans have to use a photo ID to obtain a library card, drink a beer, cash a check, board an airplane or check into a hotel.”
—Heritage Foundation Fellow Hans von Spakovsky (defending voter-ID laws in the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, 9/8/11)

“Mr. von Spakovsky is fond of saying that you need photo ID to board a plane. I wish he’d add “and I’m George Clooney” because neither one is true. To get to you today, I had to board a plane from Los Angeles. I never showed photo ID. While waiting in the terminal, I drank a beer while waiting for the flight and quite enjoyed it. I never showed ID…. Voting is in two articles of the Constitution in 10 amendments of the Constitution. It’s featured at the very heart of our constitutional order.

“Boarding a plane is nice. Drinking a beer is very nice. But outside of Prohibition, I don’t see that in the Constitution.”
—Justin Levitt (at the same subcommittee hearing)

“When I’m not here, I’m a pharmacist. And if you come in my store and you refill a prescription I have to take and look at a picture ID to verify that you are getting your prescription.”
—Republican South Carolina State Senator Kevin Bryant (at a voter-ID press conference, Columbia, South Carolina, 1/12/12)

“Can anyone show me in the Constitution where it says you have the right to buy prescription drugs?”
—Democratic South Carolina State Representative Todd Rutherford (speaking after Bryant at the same press conference)