Columbus Ohio GOP Chair Opposes More Early Voting, Saying It Helps African-Americans
The battle for voting rights in 2012 is getting nastier and growing far beyond the fight over whether specific state-issued ID is needed to get into a polling place voting booth.
In Franklin County, Ohio, where Columbus is located, Doug Priese, the GOP County Chairman and a county Board of Election (BOE) member, explained his recent BOE vote against expanded weekend early voting hours in November, by saying he didn’t want to make it easier for Democratic Party organizers to turn out the African-American vote.
“I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine,” Preisse said, in The Columbus Dispatch. “Let’s be fair and reasonable.”
The article continued, “He called claims of unfairness by Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern and others “bullshit. Quote me!”
Needless to say, this comment, coming against the backdrop of a directive last week by Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State John Husted that will limit early voting on the weekend before the presidential election, was quickly called the latest evidence of a GOP voter suppresion effort. In Ohio, the cities are where the biggest Democratic voting blocks reside, including many African-Americans.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s fight over early voting is escalating. According to the Plunderbund blog, the county BOE where the city of Dayton is located, said that they will keep early voting hours open that final weekend—setting up a legal fight with Husted. In the past, the SOS has always won these fights, because courts have ruled the office—whether filled by Ds or Rs—has the authority to issue election administration rules.
There are several things going on that progressives need to keep in mind—before delving into the weedy details of election rules.
First, this absolutely is a partisan fight—tinkering with the voting season rules to benefit one side—and that’s not new in Ohio.
In 2004, the Franklin County BOE, acting on its own and encouraged by the then Republican SOS, did many things that resulted in thousands of African-Americans standing outside for hours during a cold, driving rain while waiting to vote. Inside the polls, the BOE—the same board where Priesse is a member—did not deploy enough voting machines to handle the voter traffic, compared to nearby whiter and wealthier suburbs in the same county. After the election, where George W. Bush won by 118,775 votes statewide, different estimates, including one by the Washington Post, found that upwards of 15,000 would-be voters were not accomodated in Franklin County.
Priesse’s comments of not helping the “African-American voting machine” are wildly ignorant of this recent history, where, if anything, the Franklin Countty BOE has the dubious record of suppressing Columbus’ voters. (It’s not just about race, per se, because Ohio’s SOS in 2004 was J. Kenneth Blackwell, an African-American Republican). It's about targeting perceived Democrats.
It’s key to look at what is and isn’t being done to accommodate eligible voters. That is where Priesse’s comments are reflective of a much bigger trend among GOP officials that goes beyond the swing state early voting and voter ID fights.
Simply put, the GOP doesn’t want to make it easier to vote in polling places. In contrast, when it comes to voting by mail, absentee ballots, they are not raising equivalent hurdles, because that’s a key part of the Republican GOTV strategy. People who vote by mail do not present any photo ID; their signature, like anybody filling out a registration form, is a sworn oath declaring they are an eligible voter under penalty of perjury.
GOP local officials like Priesse see efforts to offer more early voting hours—which will help African-Americans in Ohio, African-Americans and Latinos in Florida, and so on—as a form of affirmative action, and they don’t like it. They think that the Civil Rights movement was a long time ago, and it’s time to move on. They like to say that America can now be a race-blind society, and thus any effort to tinker with voting practices or accomodating voters that help minorities should be relegated to the past.
This attitude is behind efforts to challenge key provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act, led by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. It’s behind their attacks on the Civil Rights Division in Eric Holder’s Justice Department, which has not cleared new voter photo ID laws in several states. It’s part of an attitude where they believe voting should be more difficult and not too easy (unless it is for their vote-by-mail supporters).
Priesse’s remarks are the tip of a divisive iceberg that will continue to surface this fall. That iceberg is not just about placing new barriers for some voters, in some locations—primarily Democratic strongholds—but about reversing the premise of Civil Rights movement. That premise is that voting should be free and fair, which in our century means there should be increasingly easy pathways to the polls and ballots that count for eligible voters.