Living in Ohio, and not on the ballot myself this fall, I decided to put in some time with the talented lawyers and law students who were handling the thousands of calls (over 15,000 last Tuesday alone) on the Obama campaign election hotline. As a former Democratic candidate and office holder in a swing congressional district, I have had personal experience with the tricks of the trade used by Republican operatives to suppress the vote, and know how important it is in a battleground state such as Ohio to protect each individual's fundamental right to cast a ballot, and have that vote counted.
Well over 200,000 Ohioans' ballots were cast "provisionally," and are likely to add to the Democrats' totals if counted. In close election, in a battleground state or swing district, provisional ballots can determine the outcome of an election. Ohio's Secretary of State Jon Husted tried to pull a fast one the Friday before the election, by announcing a last minute change to the rules regarding the validity and tabulation of these ballots, sending Democratic lawyers back to federal court where the federal judge gave Husted another dressing down.
There is something wrong with the voting rules and regulations in Ohio that result in the use of such high numbers of "provisional" ballots, not to mention lawsuits. It is dismaying that our country's political landscape is so fractured that respect for the right of everyone to cast their ballot for the candidate of one's choice is not a "bipartisan" value. The efforts to alter the outcome of elections by keeping people from voting need to come to an end. After my experience with the voter hotline, and seeking the advice and opinions from other volunteers there, I have a few suggestions for moving forward.
1. Bring back same-day registration. Most of the calls that came in to the hotline, and the reason that many were required to vote provisionally, had to do with questions around registration. Prospective voters with identification should be able to register or update their registration on the spot at their polling place, the Board of Elections or Early Voting Center. The use of modern, computerized registration software would facilitate registration, and avoid duplication or worries about "fraud."
2. Establish uniform weekend voting hours. In Ohio, in the period before the election, county boards of elections in more Republican areas were allowing weekend voting while in Democratic-leaning counties, the Republicans on the board were voting against weekend voting. Again Democratic lawyers went to court, weekend hours were restored but in a limited, albeit uniform, fashion by the reluctant Jon Husted. In my home county, this limitation led to extremely long lines, traffic jams and waiting times of several hours the last weekend before Election Day. If our elected officials respected the rights of all of our citizens, including those who work long hours during the week, early voting would be offered on more weekends, for longer hours, on a uniform basis throughout the state.
3. Allow more early voting centers to open. Whether a county is large or small, regardless of population size, Ohio law limits the county to one early voting location. In Franklin County, it was located on the north side of town, making it more difficult for those on the south and west sides in particular to cast their ballot. A county of over one million people should be able to offer more than one early voting location. The idea after all should be to enable people to engage in our democratic processes, not to continue to find ways to make it harder to vote, or to keep those votes from being counted.
Poll watchers and hotline lawyers did a great job in organizing to protect the vote in Ohio. It is also worth it to mobilize to demand changes that would alleviate the need for so many provisional ballots, and recognize the right of each of us to have our say in our elections in theory and in practice.