TOLEDO — When Mitt Romney’s dad was a candidate for president back in the 1960s, Republicans competed on the strength of their personalities and ideas.
It was the same when Newt Gingrich was an up-and-coming Republican leader in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
But no more?
Republicans have a new strategy for competing in tight elections.
In Ohio this fall, the party faces a serious challenge. Republican Governor John Kasich, a GOP “star” for the better part of three decades, has staked his political fortunes on an attempt to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees while undermining the ability of their unions to function.
The move has proven to be massively unpopular. More than 1.3 million Ohioans signed petitions that forced a referendum on whether to implement the anti-labor law. Polls show that Ohioans are ready to do just that when they weigh in on referendum Issue 2.
But Ohio’s Republican secretary of state is trying to make it a whole lot harder for Ohioans to cast those votes.
On Friday, across Ohio, county boards of elections shut down early voting for next Tuesday’s election. They did so on orders from Secretary of State Jon Husted. A Republican stalwart,
Husted served as the party’s legislative point man (rising to the rank of Ohio House Speaker), co-chaired GOP campaigns (including that of 2008 presidential candidate John McCain) and has been closely tied to national conservative groups working on issues such as school choice and privatization. While serving in the legislature, Husted was allied with the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been promoting Voter ID laws and other rule changes designed to suppress turnout.
Husted claimed a hastily passed and deliberately vague new state law, which took effect just last week, prohibits early voting in the three days before the election. That’s a dramatic change from traditional practice in Ohio, where early voting on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before high-profile elections has been allowed for years—and has permitted tens of thousands of citizens to participate in the process.
The law in question, Ohio House Bill 224, was written primarily to deal with military ballots. Yet, Husted is interpreting it as a bar on early voting. State Representative Kathleen Clyde, a Democrat who represents Kent, says Hustad is essentially creating his own rules.
“When you take out major chunks” of the legislation, as Husted has, explains Clyde, “the bill is now unreadable and incomprehensible.”
But the confusion has worked for Husted and the GOP. County election officials have, at his behest, shut down early voting across Ohio.
That’s caused protests across Ohio. In Toledo, crowds showed up outside the offices of the Lucas County Board of Elections, which had scheduled business hours for Saturday and Sunday but canceled them to comply with Husted’s order.
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“It’s un-American and undemocratic to close the polls the weekend before the vote,” said the Rev. Willie Perryman, pastor of Toledo’s Jerusalem Baptist Church. “The real reason is they want to suppress the vote.”
“For me, the voting booth is the one place where the rich man and the poor man stand as equals,” Larry Friedman, the president of a Toledo cleaning firm who showed up to protest the closing down of early voting.company, explained to reporters.
There was no question that qualified voters wanted to cast their ballots early—either because they would be away on election day or because they wanted to avoid lines. Newspapers, radio and television stations across the state reported on voters who came to local elections offices Saturday and Sunday, only to find doors that have historically been open on the eve of a major election to be locked.
In the last off-year election, 2009, the Toledo area saw 1,814 early votes, Lucas County Elections Board executive director Ben Roberts told the Toledo Blade.
In 2010, the number rose to 5,551.
This year, before Husted shut down the early voting, 5,602 ballots had been cast. Perryman and others who were protesting believe that thousands more would have been cast Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
So why erect a barrier to thousands of voters in one county, and to tens of thousands or more statewide?
As with moves made by Republican governors and legislators not just in Ohio but across the country to develop overly strict Voter ID laws, to limit same-day registration and to cut back on early voting, the point is to depress turnout, especially in working-class communities such as Toledo.
The barriers don’t just make it harder to vote; they reduce enthusiasm in communities that are trying to increase turnout.
“As you get closer to [election day] the excitement grows and therefore we’re going to miss the moment with the early vote,” explained the Rev. Cedric Brock of the Mount Nebo Church in Toledo, who told local reporters that the shuttering of the polls over the weekend was “un-American” and “un-democratic.” “Ohio being the battleground state for the country for the 2012 Presidential race, we feel this is a tag to slow that momentum down,” said Rev. Block.
The pastor’s point is well taken.
Opposition to Governor Kasich’s anti-labor law appears to be so intense that turnout will be strong Tuesday—and if polls are correct, the governor will be dealt a setback by the people.
But allowing assaults on democracy in an off-year election is a dangerous game. It sets a precedent for the presidential election year, when the gaming of the system could well tip the balance in battleground states.