Ohio 'middle-of-road' state on early voting rights

Ohio is a middle-of-the-road state when it comes to early voting access, and more restrictive laws are found even in solidly blue states like New York.

Eighteen states, including the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Kentucky, ban in-person early voting unless voters declare a hardship, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the other end, 10 states not only allow in-person early voting, but require polling places to be open for some weekend hours, according to the NCSL. A directive last week from Secretary of State Jon Husted eliminated weekend hours, which some Ohio counties had planned on, while ensuring that all counties had some evening early voting hours.

“Where Ohio stands right now is basically, square in the middle,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center, and a professor of political science at Reed College in Oregon.

Gronke said he agreed with Husted’s decision to make hours uniform in all counties, but disagreed with eliminating all weekends.

“If I was advising the secretary of state, I would say, ‘How about one Saturday?’ ” Gronke said. “I think he was in a very difficult situation. I don’t like to see major changes and major inequities happen in a presidential election year, and I think he really threaded the needle pretty well.”

While Democrats complain about “outrageous” actions to suppress voter turnout, and Republicans accuse Democrats of pushing for “confusion and chaos” in the early voting debate, the truth is Ohio allows voters more opportunity than many states.

Ohio is one of 32 states that allow no-excuse, or “no-fault” absentee voting in person, according to the NCSL. In the other 18 states, voters can only vote that way if they declare that they will be unable to vote at their polling place on Election Day because of travel, work responsibilities, disability or another approved reason.

Gronke said Ohio’s decision to mail an absentee ballot application to every registered voter (rather than have a patchwork of different county policies), is unprecedented nationally, outside of Oregon and Washington, which conduct all elections by mail.

Several election observers said it is much easier to vote in Ohio today than it was eight years ago — largely because of the no-fault absentee rule — but that the state has taken steps backward in the past two years.

In the 2008 presidential election, Montgomery County offered eight separate days of weekend voting, plus the Monday before the election, all of which are now closed to voting. More than 10,000 people voted on those days in 2008.

“We have a system where you saw significant improvements from 2000-2010, even though there were still serious problems with it,” said Richard Saphire, a professor of law at the University of Dayton. “In the last two or three years you’ve seen the system move in a direction that’s not very hopeful and not very promising.”

Both Saphire and Gronke said voting rights have been scaled back in states with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. Gronke said while he likes the decision by the Republican Husted, “it’s hard to miss the partisan pattern there.”

Saphire said while Husted had to make hours uniform or face significant legal challenges, he could have expanded the opportunity for all voters and chose not to. He said states and individual counties could make voting a higher priority by providing money for it.

“There ought to be a serious effort about depoliticizing the entire process of administering elections,” Saphire said. “When you have a process that is inherently political, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have results that tend to be viewed as partisan.”