Thursday, September 1, 2011

FitzGerald vs. Republicans: the new voting war

So another ballot battle has broken out in town, another partisan fight about how Greater Clevelanders vote. This time it’s between Ed FitzGerald and Jon Husted, the Cuyahoga County executive and the secretary of state, and it’s about the absentee ballot applications all county residents get in the mail.

I get why FitzGerald and the county council decided to have county workers mass-mail those applications to everyone, now that a new election law says boards of elections can’t do it anymore.

The county has been sending absentee applications to all voters since 2006, and it’s helped prevent a repeat of the terrible polling-place traffic jams that marred the 2004 presidential election. I wrote a lot about the voting problems we struggled with a few years ago, and I don’t want to see them come back.

Still, I’m finding the whole fight disappointing. One reason is I don’t think it’ll end well. Republicans in the legislature, enraged that FitzGerald found a way around their new election law, may simply ban counties from doing it again, making FitzGerald’s clever move a mere one-time victory.

Also, it’s tiring to see FitzGerald fall in with the partisan troops. “All the usual suspects are lining up,” he complains of the Republicans, but by saying that, isn’t he lining up on the other side? His use of the fight as ammo in a Democratic Party fundraising letter escalates the conflict. It’s another chapter in a sorry story: At least since the 2000 Florida recount, we’ve been stuck fighting over dueling Democratic and Republican ways of conducting elections.

FitzGerald didn’t start this particular battle. Republicans in the legislature did when they passed HB 194, which banned the mass mailing of absentee applications by election boards. Secretary of state Jon Husted followed up last week with a directive that did the same, before the law takes effect.

(Democrats are circulating petitions to repeal HB 194, which also cuts early voting at election offices from five weeks to two. They say the law is aimed at their voters. Early and absentee voting helped President Obama get out the vote in Ohio in 2008.)

Republicans’ argument for stopping the mass mailings is that if some counties send them out and others can’t afford it, then the state is tolerating “unequal treatment of voters in different counties,” as Republican state auditor David Yost wrote.

The argument does have a certain logic to it – it’s not “deceitful,” as state Rep. Mike Foley said yesterday. But it ignores the fact that long lines to vote are a more serious problem in urban counties and college towns than in small rural precincts. And it throws out a helpful solution rather than expanding it. Even if you give Republicans the benefit of the doubt about their motivation, they’re still so worried about consistency, they’re insisting on a system that’s less helpful to voters than it could be.

Yost may come out of this looking worse than anyone. He knows that HB 194 doesn’t stop counties from mass-mailing ballots, just county election boards. So his warning that he may punish Cuyahoga County with a “finding of recovery” in its next audit is a misuse of his authority. And his blog post, “The Wreck of Edward FitzGerald,” which slyly connects the county executive with the old county government’s scandals, shows he’s more interested in fighting with a Democrat than watching the books.

Husted’s arguments with FitzGerald are especially disappointing because, until last week, it looked like he was a moderate in the ballot wars, the Republican who discouraged his fellow Republicans from passing a new voter ID law. But his awful reaction to FitzGerald’s move – he said he might block boards of elections from processing mass-mailed ballot applications -- would’ve really caused a vote-suppression scandal.

Connie Schultz got Husted to back off that idea (he said he’d been “thinking out loud”). Her column yesterday encouraged his independent instincts. We’ll need to see a lot more of that side of Husted, if Ohio is going to have any hope of avoiding another partisan blood feud around our voting rules in 2012.

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