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Ohio is intent on turning back the clock on voting rights

Jonathan P Hicks | 12/19/2013, 3:42 p.m.
Jonathan P. Hicks

Ohio’s history in fighting for the rights of African-Americans has been notable. Ohio was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and serves as the home of Oberlin College, one of the first educational institutions of higher learning to enroll Black students.

But these days, you’d never know the state’s history with racial justice if you were to look at the assault on voting that is fully underway in the Buckeye State. In fact, the state of Ohio has become the center of national attention because of a series of voting bills in the Republican-controlled legislature that are designed to turn back the clock in terms of access to the ballot box.

The latest bill, approved by the state’s House of Representatives, makes it easier for the secretary of state to purge names from the voter rolls by cross-referencing the state’s database with others throughout the country to find problems.

Additionally, the bill would cut down on the minimum number of voting machines that each county is required to have. Republicans say that provision is a result of counties with smaller populations complaining about the amount of money they must spend for Election Day operations. But they don’t seem to understand that the right to vote is a principle that should be accommodated financially and a right that should be encouraged by making voting as easy as possible.

But that’s not the way Ohio’s legislature looks at it. These measures, along with others introduced by Republicans in the state, would undoubtedly lead to longer lines in urban areas and discourage voting by African-American residents and others.

“We’re seeing a full-frontal attack on access to the ballot box in Ohio,” said state Sen. Nina Turner, an outspoken critic of the various voting laws in the legislature. Turner spoke with me this week about the voting rights battering in Ohio.

“This is a regression in voting rights,” said Turner, who is running for secretary of state of Ohio and has been the state’s leading watchdog over the excesses of the Republican right.

“With all the flow of corporate money that comes into the electoral process, the only counterbalance is for the people to have access to the ballot box. What we’re seeing is the 21st century version of everything the freedom fighters fought against in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Ohio has long been considered a crucial swing state. Former President George Bush carried Ohio in 2004, and President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and again in 2012.

Since the 2008 election, Republicans in Ohio have introduced a number of measures aimed at tightening voting rules and reducing voting periods. The state’s Republican legislature has considered or passed a number of bills aimed at cutting down on the participation at the voting booth of reliable Democratic constituencies. And no group is more loyal to the Democratic Party than African-Americans, making them the major target of the Republican right.

In one bill, Republican officials sought to cut the number of voting machines that the state’s counties should have available, a move that would create longer voting lines. Another bill would reduce the early voting period by six days and eliminate the state’s same-day voter registration program.

Because the state’s Republican officials seem intent on enacting these shameful and regressive laws, one can only hope that the courts will step in and rule against these actions to violate the rights of the voters—principally African-Americans, elderly and young. It would be the right thing to do, especially because fairness and justice is a commodity in short supply in Ohio’s legislature.