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“Blatant And Immediate”: The Supreme Court That Made It Easier To Buy Elections Just Made It Harder For People To Vote In Them

In case there was any remaining confusion with regard to the precise political intentions of the US Supreme Court’s activist majority, things were clarified Monday. The same majority that has made it easier for corporations to buy elections (with the Citizens United v. FEC decision) and for billionaires to become the dominant players in elections across the country (with the McCutcheon v. FEC decision) decided to make it harder for people in Ohio to vote.

Yes, this Court has messed with voting rights before, frequently and in damaging ways. It has barely been a year since the majority struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act.

But Monday’s decision by the majority was especially blatant—and immediate. One day before early voting was set to begin in Ohio on Tuesday, the Supreme Court delayed the start of the process with a decision that will reduce the early voting period from thirty-five days to twenty-eight days.

Assaults on early voting are particularly troublesome, as the changes limit the time available for working people to cast ballots and increase the likelihood of long lines on Election Day. And changes of this kind are doubly troublesome when they come in close proximity to high-stakes elections, as they create confusion about when and how to vote.

American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Executive Director Freda Levenson decried the ruling, calling it “a real loss for Ohio voters, especially those who must use evenings, weekends and same-day voter registration to cast their ballot.”

The ACLU fought the legal battle for extended early voting on behalf of the National Association of Colored People and the League of Women Voters, among others.

“To make (the Supreme Court ruling) even worse,” Levenson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “this last-minute decision will cause tremendous confusion among Ohioans about when and how they can vote.”

Ohio Republicans had no complaints. They have made no secret of their disdain for extended early voting, which has been allowed for a number of years and which has become a standard part of the political process in urban areas where voters seek to avoid the long lines that have plagued Ohio on past Election Days.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a top Republican, has taken the lead in efforts to restrict voting. In June, he established a restricted voting schedule. Husted’s scheme was upset by lower-court rulings. In particular, the courts sought to preserve early voting in the evening and on Sundays, which is especially important for working people.

Fully aware of that reality, the Supreme Court scrambled to issue a 5-4 decision that “temporarily” allows the limits on early voting to be restored. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy voted to allow Husted to limit voting, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan opposed the ruling.

Monday’s ruling was not a final decision; the Court could revisit the matter. But that won’t happen in time to restore full early voting before his year’s November 4 election.

The Court is sending a single of at least tacit approval of controversial moves by officials in other states—such as Wisconsin and North Carolina– to curtail early voting and access to the polls. Legal wrangling also continues over the implementation of restrictive Voter ID rules in those states and others—with special concern regarding Wisconsin, where a September federal appeals court ruling has officials scrambling to implement a Voter ID law that had been blocked by a lower-court judge.

Expressing disappointment that a narrow majority on the Supreme Court has permitted “changes that could make it harder for tens of thousands of Ohioans to vote,” Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, said, “Courts should serve as a bulwark against rollbacks to voting rights and prevent politicians from disenfranchising voters for political reasons.”

Weiser is right.

Unfortunately, the High Court is focused on expanding the influence of billionaires, not voters.


By: John Nichols, The Nation, September 29, 2014

October 2, 2014 Posted by | U. S. Supreme Court, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pure Partisanship”: The Battle For Voting Rights Isn’t Over

Sean Barry showed up at the same polling place in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, where he cast his ballot for Barack Obama in 2008. But when he got there, the poll workers informed him that his name was nowhere to be found on the voter rolls. They also told him he wasn’t alone; other regular voters had arrived only to find their names missing. All of them had to submit provisional ballots. Allegations of an illegal voter purge were already swirling, and Barry felt uneasy. “I feel unsteady about my vote being counted,” he said. But in the end, with or without Barry’s vote, Obama won Pennsylvania easily.

Voter suppression was only going to have an electoral impact if the race got within spitting distance, and in the end, the attempted voter purges, voter ID laws, and partisan decision-making by elections administrators were not enough to swing the 2012 presidential election to Republicans. It was supposed to pick off the votes of poor and minority voters who vote disproportionately Democratic. Instead, the efforts seemed to have the opposite effect, in some places, galvanizing communities of color. But the issue is far from resolved, and were it not for court orders in many states limiting the suppressive policies, the situation could have been much scarier. Voting rights activists now need to do what they can to keep awareness high post-election. If they do, they may have a chance to reframe the entire debate around casting ballots.

There’s little doubt that the plan to make voting harder backfired in several swing states with large minority communities. Turnout among voters of color, those most likely to be impacted by suppressive tactics, was high, particularly in swing states. African Americans matched their record vote in 2008, while Latinos came out in even higher numbers than last time. In minority precincts in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio, voters waited for hours to cast their ballots. People rarely stand for six or seven hours just to vote for a candidate—this was about their rights, too.

It probably wasn’t a shock to the grassroots organizers spreading the word about the new voting changes. In August, when it appeared Pennsylvania’s voter ID law could disenfranchise a huge chunk of the minority community, I spent time with Joe Certaine, a longtime community activist who was leading the effort to get people IDs. He told me turnout would be higher with the law than without—because no one wanted to see their hard-earned franchise taken away. “The people united will never be defeated,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

But it wasn’t just people power—Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, like those in Wisconsin, Texas, and elsewhere, was not in effect on Election Day thanks to legal battles. A voter purge in Florida, which targeted disproportionately minority voters, stopped before a court could order it not to, while courts intervened in similar purges in Texas and Colorado. Many of those ongoing court battles will resume next year, and help set the tone for the next election.

Those same people who stood in seven-hour lines to make their voices heard would be well-served to get involved in the efforts to reform the election process as a whole. Given the outcome of the presidential race, there won’t likely be any major post-election legal challenges. But make no mistake, around the country there were plenty of problems—ones with easy solutions. For instance, if there were stricter national standards surrounding how voters are registered and how voter rolls are maintained, we wouldn’t have seen the disturbing reports across Philly of regular voters showing up to discover their names weren’t listed—possible evidence of a last- minute purge. (A spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Secretary of State said the “list maintenance” was “nothing more intensive than normal.”)

Removing partisanship more generally would make an even bigger difference. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted restricted early voting hours and made a series of decisions about provisional ballots that may result in some legitimate voters losing their vote. By moving election administrations to a non-partisan process—like the one in Wisconsin—rules about where, when, and how to vote would be made without regard for which party they help. It’s hard to imagine a reason other than partisanship for why long lines are particularly prevalent in minority precincts, for instance, where there seems to be a perpetual shortage of machines.

After elections, most people stop caring about provisional ballots and voting hours, the seemingly drier aspects of the democratic process. But this election may have illustrated bluntly what’s at stake. Fights over strict voter ID laws around the country helped show that in-person voter fraud is largely a myth, and exposed the partisan Republican agenda behind those laws. The first evidence of a shift in public opinion already came last night, when after polling showed the measure would win, Minnesota voters killed a proposal to create a voter ID law. Voting rights activists may be able to build on the unprecedented coverage of voting issues this election and the organizing they’ve already done to make fair elections a policy issue going forward. Just because the election is over doesn’t mean the battle for voting rights is.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 7, 2012

November 8, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Hanging Chads Of 2012”: Eleventh-Hour GOP Voter Suppression Could Swing Ohio

Ohio GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted has become an infamous figure for aggressively limiting early voting hours and opportunities to cast and count a ballot in the Buckeye State.

Once again Husted is playing the voter suppression card, this time at the eleventh hour, in a controversial new directive concerning provisional ballots. In an order to election officials on Friday night, Husted shifted the burden of correctly filling out a provisional ballot from the poll worker to the voter, specifically pertaining to the recording of a voter’s form of ID, which was previously the poll worker’s responsibility. Any provisional ballot with incorrect information will not be counted, Husted maintains. This seemingly innocuous change has the potential to impact the counting of thousands of votes in Ohio and could swing the election in this closely contested battleground.

“Our secretary of state has created a situation, here in Ohio, where he will invalidate thousands and thousands of people’s votes,” Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgessOhio, said during a press conference at the board of elections in Cuyahoga County yesterday in downtown Cleveland. Added State Senator Nina Turner: “‘SoS’ used to stand for ‘secretary of state.’ But under the leadership of Jon Husted, ‘SoS’ stands for ‘secretary of suppression.’ ”

In 2008, 40,000 of the 207,000 provisional ballots cast in Ohio were rejected. The majority of the state’s provisional ballots were cast in Ohio’s five largest counties, which are strongly Democratic. Moreover, provisional ballots are more likely to be cast by poorer and more transient residents of the state, who are also less likely to vote Republican.

The number of discarded provisional ballots could rise significantly due to Husted’s directive. It’s also very likely that more provisional ballots will be cast in 2012 than in 2008, thanks to a wave of new voting restrictions in Ohio and nationwide. The Associated Press reported that 31 percent of the 2.1 million provisional ballots cast nationwide in 2008 were not counted, and called provisional ballots the “hanging chads of 2012.”

A series of missteps by the secretary of state and new rulings by the courts have increased the use of provisional ballots and could delay the outcome of the election and the legitimacy of the final vote.

In Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Franklin County (Columbus), voters who requested absentee ballots were wrongly told they were not registered to vote and should cast provisional ballots. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections quickly followed up with 865 such voters, but in Franklin County a sample of rejected absentee ballot requests found that 38 percent were mistakenly listed as “not registered,” according to an analysis by Norman Robbins of Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates. An untold number of would-be absentee voters could fall into this category in Ohio’s other eighty-six counties. “The deadline has passed to send these voters absentee ballots,” writes Robbins. “Therefore, there needs to be an immediate and broad public announcement that all voters who have been officially informed that they are ‘not registered’ and who believe they truly are registered, should definitely vote a provisional ballot so that their votes might be counted when better searches are done on their provisional ballots.” (A computer glitch by the secretary of state’s office also delayed the processing of 33,000 voter registration forms, which Husted just sent to local boards of elections this week).

Moreover, any voter who requested an absentee ballot but decides, for one reason or another, to vote in person must cast a provisional ballot. Of the 1.3 million absentee ballots sent to Ohio voters, 1.1 million have been returned, according to Husted’s office. But that still leaves up to 200,000 potential votes unaccounted for.

Recent court decisions will also impact the counting of provisional ballots. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that ballots cast in the “right church, wrong pew”—at the right polling place, wrong precinct—must be counted, despite Husted’s objections. But the court sided with Husted that ballots cast at the “wrong church, wrong pew”—at the wrong polling place and wrong precinct—won’t be counted, and that election officials are not required to tell voters that they’re at the wrong location.

A coalition of voting rights groups have filed an emergency injunction against Husted’s last-minute provisional ballot directive. Husted’s briefs are due in court by November 6. According to Ohio law, provisional ballots won’t be counted until ten days after the election. So, if the presidential election comes down to Ohio and the margin is razor-thin, as many are predicting, we won’t know the outcome until well after Election Day. And only then will we find out how many eligible voters were wrongly disenfranchised by the secretary of state.


By: Ari Berman, The Nation, November 4, 2012

November 5, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Ohio Voting Problems”: Thousands Of Mail-In Ballot Applications May Have Been Unfairly Rejected

It’s no secret that the presidential race could come down to Ohio. The Buckeye State has loomed large for months, and word is, both Romney and Obama will be in Columbus on Election Night. According to Nate Silver, there’s a nearly 50-percent chance that the state will determine the election outcome. All eyes seem to be there—when WaPo’s The Fix shifted it from “leans Democratic” to “toss up” yesterday on the electoral map, half the internet seemed to respond with either cheers or jeers.

But while everyone’s been watching the polls and political rallies, the chances that the election will be mired in confusion and controversy increased this week. Thousands of requests for mail-in ballots across the state may have been unfairly rejected, thanks to a technical glitch in the data-sharing software between the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State’s office. The idea is that when a voter updates her address at the BMV, it also gets updated at the Secretary of State’s office. But for 65,000 registered voters, the updates weren’t made. About half of those voters submitted a separate update to the voting registrar. That left 33,000 people whose address on the voter rolls did not match their actual address. The information is now being updated, so that by Election Day, the rolls should be correct.

But there’s still a big problem for voters who chose to request mail-in ballots—an option Secretary of State Jon Husted has repeatedly encouraged. It’s hard to know how many of the 33,000 requested absentee ballots, but those who did were probably rejected for the address discrepancy. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections has already found 865 requests for ballots have been unfairly rejected. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates (NOVA) estimates that if the same rate holds true across the state, 4,500 registered voters may have not have received the requested ballots, and another 6,000 provisional ballots might go uncounted. (Those who request absentee ballots and then choose to vote in person must vote provisionally.) This week, NOVA’s research director, Norman Robbins, sent a letter to Husted requesting that he order all counties to doublecheck whether requests had been wrongfully rejected.

Husted, who’s come under fire from voting-rights advocates for trying to limit early-voting hours, has bragged repeatedly in press releases about the state’s absentee voting program—just Tuesday, his office sent a press release boasting that “1.2 million Ohioans have already cast ballots.” But there’s been no press release on the address mix-up. Ostensibly, there was enough time to get the wrongly rejected voters their mail-in ballots, but with the election only days away, they’ll need to send them back at lightening speed. According to the Secretary of State’s website, the mail-in ballots must be received by Saturday.

Even then, the mail-in ballots won’t all be counted; as I wrote last week, a new study shows that once sent in, mail-in ballots have a higher rate of being unfairly tossed out than any other form of voting. Nobody can say how many Ohioans will have their votes—or their requests for ballots—wrongfully rejected. But no matter what, it will be far too many.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 2, 2012

November 3, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mail In Your Ballot, Cross Your Fingers”: Votes Cast By Mail Are More Likely To Go Uncounted

Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, has been under fire now for months from Democrats. They’re angry, particularly, about his moves to limit early voting hours across the state—especially those on the weekend before the election. Poor and minority voters rely on the expanded hours. Black churches have used the last Sunday before election day to bring voters to the polls; low-income voters often have inflexible work schedules and childcare demands at home. After a lengthy court battle, Husted has now authorized county election boards to offer hours in the three days before election day. But he did limit early voting hours in the weeks before, with fewer evening hours and no weekend hours.

But Husted insists he’s no 2012 version of Katherine Harris or Ken Blackwell. He’s repeatedly defended himself by pointing out that he’s also done something to make voting easier for all Ohioans: expand mail-in voting. Anyone in the state can vote by mail and this year, for the first time, the secretary of state sent applications for absentee ballots to every voter on the rolls. People have responded. Husted’s office has been churning out press releases touting the million-plus voters who’ve taken advantage of the offer and requested mail-in ballots. It sounds like a great thing. Ohio’s elections have been plagued by Election Day controversies; in 2004, in particular, lines were extremely long, particularly in minority polling places, and many worried that a lot of voters, after hours in line, gave up and went home. Mail-in ballots will take some of the pressure off of what’s sure to be a tense November 6 in the state that could swing the election to either President Obama or Mitt Romney.

But there’s a hitch—a big one. A new report from the Voting Technology Project, a collaborative research effort by MIT and Caltech, shows that votes cast by mail are significantly less likely to be counted than those cast in person. The report has serious implications given recent trends toward more and more mail-in ballots. Voting by mail has grown from less than 10 percent of ballots cast in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010. Two states, Oregon and Washington, conduct elections exclusively through the mail, while several others, including California and Colorado, allow voters to become permanent absentee voters, automatically getting a mail-in ballot every year.

That doesn’t mean the system is humming along. In 2008, 800,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by election workers for one problem or another. Another 3.9 million were requested by voters but never received, while 2.9 million were sent to voters but never made it back to election officials. In total, as many 7.6 million votes, 21 percent of those requested, may have “leaked” out of the system before the votes were counted. It’s still the case that the total number of mail-in ballots cast and rejected is small—around 2 percent of those requested—but the gap in accuracy is certainly cause for concern. And in a tight election, those uncounted ballots could make a difference.

“It continues to surprise me,” says Charles Stewart, a political science professor at MIT and one of the authors of the report, ”that with all of the growth in voting by mail, that there has been surprisingly little curiosity about how accurate the voting mode is when you vote by mail.”

It’s ironic, too, given how much effort has gone into improving voting techology in the last decade. Since the 2000 presidential election and the controversies over faulty voting machines and poorly designed ballots, most reformers have focused on fixing the technology problems. Under the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, voting machines must now alert voters if they’ve skipped voting for one office or if they’ve selected more than one candidate for an office. Because the voter is physically in the polling place, it’s easy for them to correct their ballot. The reforms have been extremely successful; Stewart estimates that as many as 1.5 million votes will be counted this year because a machine didn’t break. Problems with mail-in ballots, he says, “probably undercut the gains we have made by buying better voting machines.”

Mailing in your vote requires a series of steps. In most states, after filling out your preferences, you sign an outside envelope and then put the actual ballot into a second envelope to ensure secrecy. Once it’s mailed and arrives at the central counting facility, elections workers verify that your signature matches the one on file and then separate the actual ballot from the envelope with your signature—meaning no one knows who cast which vote. From there everything is scanned and counted.

The trouble is, there are a multitude of ways the process can get screwed up. First there’s the U.S. Mail; the ballot could get lost and never arrive at the facility—or be delayed and arrive too late to be counted. If it does get there on time, your signature might now look different from the one you had when you registered; elderly people, who are the most likely to use mail-in ballots, can face problems if their signatures get shaky. Even if your ballot makes it to the scanning stage, any mistake you’ve made, like accidentally filling in bubbles for two candidates, can cause the vote for that office not to count. Unlike with in-person voting, there’s no way to alert an individual that there’s a problem with his or her ballot; once it’s at the counting stage, no one knows who cast which ballot.

But while mail-in ballots appear to have significant problems, Americans clearly like having voting options and it’s easier for election workers if everything doesn’t come down to a single day of immense pressure. That’s why the best solution is to expand in-person early voting, giving people as many hours and days as possible to cast their ballots.

Americans are twice as likely to vote early now as they were in 2004. However, while mail-in voting has grown steadily, in-person early voting has only expanded in fits and starts. In 2000, only 3 percent of voters did so through showing up at polling places early. While that rose to 13 percent in 2008, it was down to 8 percent in 2010. By expanding early voting options, states would take pressure off elections officials while still making the most of improvements to voting technology. Certainly states should think twice before moving to mail-in only elections or allowing people to automatically get an absentee ballot each year.

It’s a lesson Ohio may have to learn this year. Husted may have created new problems when he decided to focus on mail-in ballots while decreasing options for early voting in several urban counties. As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported Thursday, 1.4 million Ohio voters have asked for absentee ballots, but so far state officials have only received 619,000 back. Those numbers are likely to grow. The gap is disturbing. Many who requested mail-in ballots but either did not fill them out or never received them may show up at the polls and instead fill out provisional ballots. (The provisional ballots allow workers to make sure voters aren’t voting twice.) With the presidential election extremely close—and with a good chance that Ohio will be the deciding state in determining who wins—election workers could easily wind up scrambling to validate and count those provisional ballots. Meanwhile, there could be litigation around the mail-in ballots that were not received in time or were rejected. There’s plenty of possibility for drama.

The heat on Husted may not end any time soon.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, October 26, 2012

October 27, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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