Back in the not so distant past, Ohio secretary of state races were a tad on the sleepy side, with candidates mostly talking about making the office more efficient or computerizing records.
This year’s race is all about about voter rights, access to the ballot, reforming the way voting districts are drawn and which candidate is the champion of the electorate.
“I am running for secretary of state to protect and expand access to the ballot box,” said Ohio Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland. “I believe that the ballot box is the greatest equalizer that we have, where your socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity does not matter. When you go vote you are equal.”
Turner contends that Republicans have ratcheted back voter access to the ballot by reducing in-person early voting opportunities she said are favored by minorities and low-income voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.
“I certainly believe that my Republican brothers and sisters are engaged in ‘if we can’t beat ‘em we cheat ‘em,’” Turner said.
Incumbent Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican seeking re-election, said Ohio is one of the most generous states in the country as far as the number of days allotted to early voting, even with cutbacks approved by the state legislature and by him.
“In the end I’m just trying to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat in our state and run the best system of elections in the country,” Husted said.
He said it is “silly” to argue he is trying to keep minorities from voting.
“In the end I believe that African American voters are just as capable of voting by the same rules as white voters or Hispanic voters and they just want a fair shot in life and I’m committed to making sure they get a fair shot,” Husted said.
In the mid-2000s Ohio expanded early voting in the wake of the 2004 presidential election debacle, when long lines resulted in thousands of people being unable to vote on Election Day. The state continues to make national news with court battles and controversy over rollbacks of that expansion.
A federal judge in June ordered the state to reinstate early voting in the three days before Election Day, a ruling that remains in place. A second decision by the same judge overturned other cutbacks in early voting days and weekend and evening hours, and reinstated same-day registration and voting. Husted asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop that ruling from going into effect and the high court ruled in Husted’s favor, saying that the state’s rules would remain in effect until after the election when a federal appeals court could rule on the merits of the case.
Husted hails that as a victory.
“What the Supreme Court did was validate what I’ve long said, which is that Ohioans should make the rules for Ohio elections and ensuring that all voters across the state operate by the same set of rules,” Husted said.
Turner said it is no final victory — just a pause until the appeals court hears the case — and said Republicans are succeeding only in creating voter confusion, which she calls a form of “voter suppression.”
Even the size and prominence of Husted’s name on a 2-foot by 3-foot voter ID informational poster has evoked controversy.
Husted ordered that the poster be placed in all 88 county board of elections offices and in polling places on Election Day. He made optional a second student-drawn pro-voting poster.
Democrats on the Hamilton County Board of Elections objected to the Husted poster, saying it amounted to electioneering inside the polling place, which is illegal. But Husted this week broke a tie vote by the board, which means both signs will be required to be posted there.
Husted spokesman Matt McClellan said Husted is trying to provide voters with helpful information and promote voting. “We put his name on everything that our office issues,” McClellan said.
The Turner campaign called it a blatant violation of the law. On Thursday, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who was Ohio secretary of state from 1983 to 1991, weighed in, saying Husted is obligated to run a fair election.
“I’ve never seen a Secretary of State who is on the ballot insist that his name be prominently displayed near the voting booths, where a voter would be barred from even wearing a small button or sticker,” Brown said. ” Jon Husted is abusing his office by forcing boards of election to give his campaign a boost.”
Libertarian Party candidate Kevin Knedler, 60, of Delaware County, is also on the Nov. 4 ballot. Knedler, who works for a lawn and garden company, is executive committee chairman of the Libertarian Party of Ohio.
The winner will serve a four year term and be paid $109,986 annually to oversee the state’s elections, handle campaign finance reports for state and federal races, and operate business registration services.
As secretary of state, Husted said, he put all Ohio voters on equal footing with decisions requiring that all boards of election have the same voting hours and banning boards from mass mailings of absentee ballot applications every year.
Husted also touted his decision to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the years when the candidates for governor or president are on the ballot.
He said the state is trying to cut down on opportunities for fraud and abuse by prohibiting people from registering and voting on the same day during the five-day “golden week,” which the legislature eliminated this year. He said he will continue to push for online voter registration because it will save time and money and be more convenient for voters.
“I think it’s time for the leaders of the General Assembly to take action on this,” Husted said. “We will not relent on this until they take action. It’s shameful that they haven’t done so.”
Husted said he supports reform of the decennial process of redrawing state legislative and congressional districts. He advocates creating a board that would require a super majority and at least one vote of the minority party to redraw lines. He would mandate that the entire population of a county be included in a district before the lines cross into another county.
Husted also wants the legislature to require more campaign finance documentation, which he would post online.
He said his office has improved business services, placing more of the process online and speeding up the registration process. He would expand on that if re-elected.
Prior to becoming secretary of state Husted represented Montgomery County districts in the Ohio House and Senate.
Turner said she plans to boost the business services offered by the secretary of state’s office and will push for online voter registration, redistricting reform and additional documentation on campaign finance reports.
She believes Husted gives lip service to redistricting reform and making voting easy, while acting to thwart reform and cut ballot access. She said if he was serious about redistricting reform he would not have voted with his fellow Republicans on the Apportionment Board to create what she believes are gerrymandered state legislative districts.
“For him now all of a sudden to say he is for redistricting reform, I find that to be laughable,” Turner said.
She was one of four state senators who proposed creating a seven member bipartisan commission to handle both apportionment and redistricting duties and requiring that any plan have the support of one member of the minority party. The bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in 2012 but not the House.
“This is about leadership and will for both parties to get over themselves and do what’s best for voters,” said Turner. “Both parties manipulate the system when they get a chance. It’s wrong. We should stop it.”
Turner said she would create a bipartisan panel of elections experts and advocates to review directives, which are the secretary of state’s orders governing elections.
She accuses Republicans of inventing the notion of rampant voter fraud to justify placing new voting restrictions — via legislation and directives — even though “there is no empirical data, there is no impending threat in the election system” of voter fraud.
A new Husted’s television ad criticizes Turner for paying her property taxes late and for receiving housing code violation citations on rental properties in the early 2000s. A Dayton Daily News investigation found that the two housing code cases at her Cleveland rental property were dismissed by the city prosecutor in Cleveland. Turner spokesman Adam Warren said Turner resolved problems with the house.
The Daily News also found that Turner paid approximately $2,400 in total property taxes a year late on the Cleveland rental and a second one in East Cleveland, one in 2003 and the other in 2005, according to Cuyahoga County Treasurer’s office records.
Turner said her family fell on economic hard times, including her husband losing his job, and they had difficulty finding tenants. They lost one of the rental properties to foreclosure in 2007.
“I have had financial challenges in my life,” Turner said. “I tightened my belt and I got everything back on track.”