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Backfired! 4 Ways the Ohio GOP Tilts Voting Rules But Ends Up Helping Democrats

When it comes to gaming voting rights, the Ohio GOP has become the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

Definition: BACKFIRED 1. When a result occurs opposite to that which was planned or expected. E.g. The plot backfired.

The 2000 presidential election opened the eyes of many in politics to the important lesson that voting rules matter. After that began the proverbial march to the sea of the GOP’s Sherman-like tactics to cut off or diminish the ability to vote of those most vulnerable to disenfranchisement, such as minorities, low-income Americans, single mothers and the like.


In Ohio, the GOP-controlled legislature -- without a fight from my predecessor, the Republican secretary of state, Ken Blackwell -- began a systematic effort to tinker with Ohio’s voting rules, from requiring people to take a training session before they could register voters, to requiring naturalized citizens to show their papers at the polling place (all of which were struck down by federal courts in 2005 and 2006).

Of course, the “coincidental” moves that were occurring in other states to push for voter identification continued to move forward in various waves, concomitant with nebulous hate campaigns about immigration. But, nearly every time the GOP in Ohio has succeeded in implementing an unfair “reform,” it has backfired on them.

Take a look at the evidence—and rest assured, that while they are still at it, their tactics and political judgment is still backfiring.


Exhibit 1: Carrot and the Stick

In late 2005, the Ohio GOP was facing a statewide ballot initiative that would have created “no-fault” absentee voting, allowing any Ohio voter to vote with an absentee ballot without giving a reason. This was one of a quartet of election-related ballot initiatives that culminated with a ballot measure specifying uniform rules and formulas for redistricting congressional districts and reapportioning state legislative districts.

Losing control of the line-drawing process, which they had controlled for more than two decades, was one of the GOP’s greatest fears. So they looked for ways to tell the public not to support these four ballot issues. GOP legislators tried to kill or "moot" the expansion of absentee voting by passing a law, H.B. 234, and telling the public that a constitutional amendment wasn’t needed (while it avoided the state having to pay postage on the return of the ballots).

Their plan was to get a “no” vote on the first issue, and they assumed the other three would fail in tandem. It worked. All four issues were defeated at the ballot. But state law now allowed anyone to vote an absentee ballot without stating a reason.

Traditionally, on Election Night, absentee ballots are counted first (because they’re already at the board of elections when the polls close). From the political side, we call a heavy emphasis on absentee or early voting “banking” your votes before Election Day. Before the advent of no-fault absentee voting, traditional absentee ballots tended to be voted more heavily by Republicans. But no more.

No-fault absentee voting created a way for grassroots organizers (many of whom are Democratic) to reach out to segments of their constituency that traditionally had difficulties getting to the polls. By 2008, especially with the strategic use of early voting by the Obama presidential campaign, “no-fault” absentee voting became a strong tool for banking Democratic votes. Republican plans to retain power by changing the voting rules backfired.


Exhibit 2: Kill the Messenger

In mid-2008, the Ohio GOP decided that Ohio’s secretary of state (me) was issuing too many directives to Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections. Unlike in some states, Ohio’s secretary of state is required (and local boards of elections are required to follow) directives that are issued to interpret and apply the maze of state and federal election laws.