Republican Legislation Undermines Voting Rights

Editorial Board

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a final plea from the Ohio Democratic Party and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless on Monday for a stay on voting provisions that disproportionately disenfranchise low-income, racial minority and disabled voters. The laws, created by the state’s Republican-led legislature in 2014, come into effect for the first time in a presidential election this year.

The legislation permits zero wiggle room for otherwise inconsequential mistakes, allowing battleground counties to discard provisional ballots if a voter fails to fill out the form perfectly. Disqualifying errors include writing a birthdate or Social Security number incorrectly, omitting a middle name or zip code or signing in cursive in the “print name” box. A stay would have allowed municipalities to count votes regardless of these minor infractions, but the Supreme Court denied it without explanation. The laws also shorten the window for early voting, eliminating the period known as “Golden Week” when people could simultaneously register to vote and cast their ballot.

The combination of an abbreviated early voting period and additional barriers to completing provisional ballots is nothing short of Republicans’ continued, concerted effort to disqualify low-income people and communities of color in Ohio’s left-leaning counties like Cuyahoga, Franklin and Lucas — the consequences of which could be especially devastating during this crucial election.

Federal court documents show that the Ohio elections board rejected nearly 12 percent of provisional and absentee ballots in 2014 and 2015 for technical errors. The counties with the highest number of discarded ballots, uncoincidentally, tended to have larger populations of Black and Latinx voters than their whiter, more conservative counterparts throughout the state.

In Cuyahoga, Ohio’s largest county, the population is over 30-percent Black, and approximately 4,000 votes were discarded there for technical errors in 2014. This statistic is especially troubling with a Donald Trump presidency on the line, since voter turnout is already anticipated to be lower than it was in 2012, when it was the lowest in precincts where President Barack Obama was the most popular.

Counties in more rural areas with higher percentages of white voters do not face similar issues. Alice Ollstein, OC ’10, reported for ThinkProgress: “Officials from Meigs County, whose population is more than 97 percent white, testified that they counted ballots from residents that had incorrect birth dates, and even those that had no name or address at all. In Wyandot County, which is nearly 98 percent white, officials approved ballots without a valid street address, city or zip code, a wrong or missing birth date or a misspelled name.”

Civil rights lawyers have already drawn the comparison between Ohio’s newest voting laws to literacy tests employed by states during the Jim Crow era to prevent people of color and poor white people from voting. This parallel rings devastatingly true and underscores the unconstitutional nature of the conservative legislation, which is a thinly veiled attempt to deter blue voters in arguably the most critical election of our lifetime.

Ohio State Senator Bill Coley, lead sponsor of one of the bills, told Reuters, “We aren’t trying to disallow their ballot, we are trying to make sure that every ballot that is cast was cast by an actual registered voter, and you are cutting down on opportunities for shenanigans.”

This rhetoric perpetuates a false narrative that voter fraud is a widespread issue in an attempt to thwart low-income and minority people — two demographics that predominantly swing left — from voting. This strategy is reflected in conservative legislation that has passed not only in Ohio, but on a national scale. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law’s 2007 report, “The Truth About Voter Fraud,” by Justin Levitt, offers a haunting prediction of how the dangers of propagating the myth that voter fraud is rampant undermines the core of our democracy.

“Perhaps because these stories are dramatic, voter fraud makes a popular scapegoat,” Levitt writes. “In the aftermath of a close election, losing candidates are often quick to blame voter fraud for the results. Legislators cite voter fraud as justification for various new restrictions on the exercise of the franchise. And pundits trot out the same few anecdotes time and again as proof that a wave of fraud is imminent.”