Ohio Democrats Expose New Ohio Voting Laws as Modern-Day Literacy Tests, Voter Suppression

KENT, OH - MARCH 15: Ohio voters go to the polls for the Ohio primary at Franklin Elementary School on March 15, 2016 in Kent
KENT, OH - MARCH 15: Ohio voters go to the polls for the Ohio primary at Franklin Elementary School on March 15, 2016 in Kent, Ohio. The Ohio Republican primary is a winner-take-all state were 66 delegates are up for grabs.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

This year we will hold our first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

And Republicans haven't wasted any time taking advantage of this window of opportunity to make it harder to vote for students, women, seniors, people with disabilities and communities of color.

In Wisconsin, there were reports of long lines, poll worker shortages and confusion over the state's new restrictive photo ID requirement, signed into law by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. In Arizona, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the decision by a GOP official to slash the number of polling locations in Phoenix, where the vast majority of the state's residents live.

Right here in Ohio we saw our Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted attempt to take away the right to vote in our presidential primary from Ohioans who will turn 18 before the general election. That's been Ohio law for 1981, but Husted issued a directive to prevent 17-year-old voters from casting a ballot for president. Several 17-year-olds challenged Husted in court, and a judge sided with the teen voters in striking down Husted's directive.

This month Husted's election administrators have been back in court, attempting to explain why every lawfully cast vote is NOT counted here in Ohio. Testimony wrapped up last week in Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) v. Husted, and here's what we learned:

Husted claims that in Ohio it's "easy to vote" -- but that is plainly not the case, certainly not for seniors, people with disabilities and communities of color, as we learned during this trial.

Husted also claims to emphasize "uniformity and equality" in Ohio's elections -- but that is plainly not the case when certain counties choose to toss absentee ballots for technical errors and other counties choose not to.

Frankly, I was stunned when I heard some of the outrageous testimony of Husted's top elections administrator, Matthew Damschroder, when he was questioned by our lawyer. Here's one exchange where Damschroder acknowledges that Ohio voters are being disenfranchised:

Q: So given the concern of Ohio's Secretary of State Jon Husted with uniformity, would you agree that it is a serious problem if voters in different counties in the state will have their ballot counted or not counted based on the issue of whether they fill their names in cursive or not?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it trouble you?

A: It does.

Q: But your preference would be that the voters in Lucas County and Warren County be disenfranchised if they fill their name field in cursive.

A: I don't think it's my preference, but I think that's what the law says.

...

Q: Does your concern about uniformity across the State of Ohio with respect to issues like cursive stem from a concern about equal protection under law of voters across the state?

A: I think I don't know the -- I guess I look at it from the standpoint of the -- our -- the Secretary's and my view on uniformity is that voters, you know, should be treated the same, have the same opportunities to vote, have the same expectation that the vote will be counted in the same way from county to county.

Q: And have the same burdens that might risk disenfranchisement?

A: Yes. That those requirements be the same across all counties.

So to summarize... the Secretary of State's office concern is not that ballots from lawfully registered Ohioans are being cast aside -- their concern is that NOT ENOUGH ballots are being thrown out for technical errors.

So what is Husted doing about this? Is he taking action against the counties that are not tossing ballots? As it turns out, he isn't, but it's interesting to learn which counties are not following his directive.

Here is another interesting exchange...

Q: And at the time that your office was pushing for that uniformity, larger urban counties with larger African-American populations, like Cuyahoga County, wanted and expressed that they wanted longer hours for early voting than what the Secretary wanted them to have, correct?

A: Correct.

Q: And, indeed, when two Democratic members of Montgomery County Board of Elections, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie, refused to cut early in-person voting hours, Secretary of State Husted removed them from office, correct?

A: I think -- I think that kind of mischaracterizes exactly what happened, but they were removed for failure to follow a directive.

Q: And the directive required a cut in early in-person voting hours than from what those Montgomery County officials of the Board of Elections wanted to have for their larger county in Ohio that contains a significant African-American population, correct?

A: Correct.

Q: And, so, the Secretary, in response to that refusal, removed them from office, correct?

A: For their failure to follow the directive.

Q: But your office has not pushed for uniformity when reports to your office show that larger counties with African-American populations are enforcing Senate Bills 205 and 216 and smaller, rural, mostly white counties are not enforcing those rules, correct?

A: That's correct.

At around the same time that the Secretary of State was removing board members for making it easier to vote, a Republican member of the Franklin County Board of Elections told reporters he didn't want to accommodate African-American voters. The Secretary of State's office didn't even investigate the matter:


Q. In 2012, you became aware, while you were working for the Ohio Secretary of State, of a Columbus Dispatch report that Doug Preisse, P-r-e-i-s-s-e, a member of the Franklin County Board of Elections, had allegedly sent an e-mail to a reporter stating, "I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter turnout machine." Correct?

...

A: Yes.

Q. And when you heard about this, surely, you then, as a top elections official for the Ohio Secretary of State, investigated potential racial bias by a Republican Board of Elections member in a county where more than one in five residents are African-Americans, correct?

A. We did not.

...

Q. Going back to, very briefly, to the issue of the removal of Mr. Ritchie and Mr. Lieberman from the Montgomery County Board of Elections, that removal took place by the Secretary of State around the same time that Doug Preisse was making his comments, allegedly, about African-American voters, correct?

A. I don't remember the specific time frame; but it was in the 2012 -- in the lead-up to the 2012 Presidential General Election.

So to summarize...Husted removes local election officials when they don't follow his directives -- except when those officials happen to be in a smaller, rural, mostly white county, counting votes that would be tossed elsewhere. Or when those officials explicitly say they don't think boards of elections should accommodate minority voters.

OK, so what's the sort of discrepancy that might result in an absentee ballot being thrown out?

Read on for one egregious example...

Q: So, sir, what would be your response, as a top elections official and a representative of the Secretary of State in the State of Ohio, to Ms. Miller when she says that she doesn't believe her vote should have been thrown out just because her Social Security number was off by one digit, especially at her age [87]?

A: I would say that I feel badly about it, but that that's the law.

Q: Do you believe -- Assuming that what Ms. Miller says is accurate, do you believe that what happened to Ms. Miller was fair?

A: I do.

Q: Even if Ms. Miller's identity could otherwise be verified by the Franklin County Board of Elections?

A: Yes.

So to summarize... the Secretary of State's office feels "badly about it" when an 87-year-old woman's ballot is thrown out even though her identity could be verified -- but they somehow think it's fair.

Keep in mind her ballot might have been counted if she simply lived in a different county.

But I thought Husted claimed there was uniformity in Ohio's elections?

Well, maybe not...

Q: So now, if you could, please, read the quote from Secretary Husted, toward the bottom of the first page of Plaintiffs' Exhibit 1484, into the record.

A: Quote: With four weeks of voting and the ability to cast a ballot early by mail or in person and on Election Day, all Ohio voters will have the same opportunity to vote no matter where they live, end quote, Secretary Husted said.

Q: Thank you. So, given what we've discussed in your testimony about different Boards of Elections in Ohio applying Senate Bill 205 and also 216 differently with respect to the five fields across the State, would you agree with me that this statement by Secretary Husted turns out not to be true?

Q: Actually, let me withdraw that and clarify a little bit. It may be true with respect to Ohio voters having the same opportunity to vote, but it would not be true with respect to Ohio voters having the same opportunity to have those votes counted, correct?

...

A: That's correct.

So to summarize... the Secretary of State's office acknowledges there is NO uniformity with regard to whether Ohioans' absentee or provisional ballots are counted from county to county.

All of these findings are troubling. However, the most disturbing thing is that these absentee and provisional ballot requirements function as nothing less than a de facto literacy test. They are unnecessary hurdles for voters with visual impairments or low literacy skills -- and they are unlawful.

Those sorts of devices for disqualifying voters were outlawed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- the same law that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Congress has the opportunity to restore the Voting Rights Act. There are bills in the House and Senate awaiting consideration, but Republican leaders have refused to take action. While he was in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Sen. Rob Portman said he hadn't looked at the bill. It's time for Portman to take a look.

And we can't leave Ohio Gov. John Kasich off the hook. He has been an active participant in making it harder for Ohioans to vote. In fact, he signed into law the measures that we are challenging in court -- and then called criticism of his efforts "just silliness."

It's not silly to want to ensure that every eligible voter is registered, every registered voter is able to vote and every vote is accurately counted. When more Americans vote and participate in the political process, our democracy is stronger. Our nation is stronger. Our community is stronger. That's why through actions like the current case and others, Ohio Democrats will keep fighting to protect the right to vote.