PORT CLINTON, OHIO — When Joe Helle returned to his small, rural hometown in 2011 after six years of active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he found his voter registration had been purged from the rolls, leaving him unable to cast a ballot in local and statewide elections that year.
“To go off to defend the right to vote only to find I’d been kicked off and couldn’t utilize that right myself, it was crushing,” Helle told TPM.
That experience, along with other frustrations with the area’s political leadership, motivated him to run successfully for mayor in Oak Harbor in 2016. This year, he’s running for his district‘s seat in the state legislature, which he hopes to flip from red to blue. If he wins, he plans to sponsor bills that would make it easier for Ohioans to vote.
“I’m a huge proponent of automatic registration. There’s no good reason we don’t do it,” Helle said. “I also think we should have same-day registration, so that if somebody decides an issue is important to them and they typically aren’t a voter, they can still show up at the polls on Election Day. I want people to vote when they want, as easily as they can.”
Even with a “blue wave” predicted for November, Republicans are expected to maintain their grip on Ohio’s House and Senate, giving Helle’s proposals little chance of becoming law, even if Democrats pick up several seats. There will, however, be several statewide races in Ohio this year — for Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, and Attorney General — that wield significant power over the future of voting rights in the influential swing state.
Whoever wins those races will have a major hand in redrawing the state’s congressional maps, in determining the availability of early voting, and in deciding the future of the state’s aggressive purge of voters, like Helle, who miss a few election cycles.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now leads a well-funded voting rights and anti-gerrymandering organization, has made the state one of his top 2018 priorities, while the Democratic Governors’ Association picked Ohio as one of four targets for a $20 million “Unrig the Map” initiative. Turning out more people this November after years of dismal voter participation, the groups hope, will help install leaders with a pro-voting rights agenda.
“If we look at the real problem in our election system it’s not that too many people are voting too many times,” Mike Brickner, the policy director of the ACLU of Ohio, told TPM. “It’s that too few people are voting once.”
The future of the purge
Helle is just one of more than two million people who have been purged from Ohio’s voter rolls over the past seven years — a process that has disproportionately impacted Democratic voters of color. Civil rights groups have sued the state, saying the policy violates the National Voter Registration Act and particularly disadvantages the homeless and housing-insecure, who have difficultly receiving and responding to the state’s mailed warnings that they’re at risk of being scrubbed from the rolls.
“You’re arbitrarily removing people based on the fact that they’re not returning a post card to the Secretary of State’s office,” Helle said. “It’s baloney.”
The state is blocked from purging any more voters while the Supreme Court considers the case, and a ruling is expected in June. But even if the court shuts down Ohio’s voter-roll purges, Ohio’s leaders will have other issues to decide in the years ahead, including how the state registers voters and verifies their eligibility. And if the court doesn’t shut down the voter-roll purges, Democrats running for office promise that they will.
Kathleen Clyde, a progressive member of the State House now running for Secretary of State, told TPM she would “stop the purging of hundreds of thousands of infrequent Ohio voters on day one.”
“I will work to shift the state’s focus to turning those voters out and getting them excited about the process, not canceling their right to vote,” she said.
Richard Cordray, the Democratic frontrunner in the governor’s race, made a similar promise in an interview with TPM.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for us to be purging the voter rolls,” he told TPM. “It’s really kind of wasteful for government to be doing, other than the agenda behind it, which is to suppress votes.”
In contrast, the likely Republican candidate for governor, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, defended the purges for the state all the way up to the Supreme Court, while his running mate, Secretary of State Jon Husted, has aggressively implemented the purge process and is the lead defendant of the lawsuit. Husted has also fought in court for the right to restrict early voting — which is predominantly used by Democratic voters.
Redrawing the lines
An initiative on the ballot in Ohio’s May 8 primary, which is expected to pass, would revamp how Ohio draws its congressional maps, giving the Secretary of State, Governor and the minority party in the legislature a louder voice in the process. It’s one of a growing number of citizen-led initiatives across the country to tackle the severe gerrymandering that has left Ohio and other states with non-competitive districts and single-party control.
“It’s not a perfect proposal but it’s a better proposal than we’ve had in the past,” Cordray told TPM. “When the majority in the legislature gets to make the maps, that’s the fox guarding the henhouse. They’re the ones who are cutting up these districts to serve themselves. It’s bad for voters, bad for the public, and it makes government less accountable. So this is likely to yield fairer maps and rein in some of the shenanigans.”
If the ballot initiative passes, lawmakers will draw new maps in 2021, following the 2020 census. If those maps don’t receive votes from at least half of the minority party, they will go to a commission made up of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and two lawmakers from each political party. A majority of that commission, including the minority party members, would have to be on board for new maps to become law.
The new process, Clyde told TPM, will allow Ohioans to be more accurately represented in Congress.
“Right now Ohio has a 50-50 with voting patterns in statewide elections, but two-thirds of the congressional seats are held by Republicans,” she said. “It’s very slanted towards one party, when it should reflect the partisanship of Ohio.”
A ‘Golden’ Future?
For many years, Ohioans had a so-called “Golden Week” during which voters could both register and cast an early ballot.
Frank LaRose, this year’s Republican candidate for Secretary of State, sponsored the bill to eliminate it, and DeWine and Husted fought successfully in court against attempts to have it reinstated. A legal settlement between the ACLU and Husted to preserve additional days of early voting that GOP state leaders hoped to get rid of will expire when a new governor and secretary of state come into office.
“We’re concerned we could see more attempts to cut back on evening and weekend hours, depending on who wins those races,” Brickner told TPM. “But it’s also could be an opportunity to expand those hours even more, which would benefit all Ohioans.”