Why Statehouse Killed Elec Ref

 

Friends of politics as usual - Why the Statehouse killed electoral reform

By Steve Hoffman
Beacon Journal editorial writer

Published on Thursday, Jun 10, 2010

As the legislature rushed toward its summer break last week, it sounded as if significant support was building for much-needed tuneups to the state's electoral machinery. In the end, repairs were left undone.

To be sure, efforts to find last-minute compromises on detailed matters are often doomed to failure. The main sponsors of bills and the leaders of the committees assigned to handle them may be well-versed in the details. But as deadlines loom, they lack the time to inform their colleagues of changes, answer questions and bring final redrafts to the floor.

When it comes to making changes in how elections are conducted and how legislative and congressional districts are drawn, other types of barriers present themselves. After all, such changes have a direct impact on every single member when it's a re-election year. U.S. House districts are of great interest to state legislators because of term limits. Many legislators start looking at the possibility of running for Congress as soon as they arrive at the Statehouse.

Let's start with the fate of proposed constitutional amendments to change the way districts are drawn, which happens once a decade, after the census.

Jon Husted, a Republican state senator, pushed a plan to create a bipartisan commission while Tom Letson, a Democratic representative, proposed a public competition for new districts, with plans scored according to detailed formulas intended to increase political competition.

Both proposals would have led to the creation of fairer, more competitive districts, although Letson's amendment would have kept congressional districts in the the hands of the legislature. Nobody stood up to argue against fairness and competition.

But the truth is, the partisan gerrymandering that will take place after the 2010 census unless new rules are adopted will end up creating safe districts for both sides.

How? Just look at the current districts, drawn by Republicans. GOP incumbents in rural areas have bulletproof seats, no surprise. But so do big-city Democrats, packed by Republicans into urban districts under the cover of following the Voting Rights Act, protecting minorities.

In other words, pure self-preservation helped block the goal of creating districts that encourage competition and a legislature more likely to find the middle ground.

A similar fate awaited bills to reform how Ohio conducts elections. The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House each passed a bill that dealt with a controversy from 2004, the so-called 'golden week' between the start of in-person absentee voting and the close of voter registration.

During that time, voters could register and cast a ballot on the same day. Both sides agreed it was a good idea to eliminate golden week.

Beyond that, fights over what information to require on absentee ballot envelopes, ways to reduce the number of provisional ballots and whether to allow online voter registration bogged down negotiations on combining the two bills.

Ohio's heavy use of provisional ballots, held until after Election Day for examination, is an especially pressing issue, a ticking time bomb. In 2004, experts estimate, some 20,000 provisional ballots were dumped in Ohio merely because voters showed up in the wrong precinct.

In a very close statewide race, those votes would mean the difference, and endless lawsuits. Democrats wanted to adopt guidelines for poll workers to send registered voters to the right precinct. Failure to follow the checklist would result in a 'no fault' finding, counting votes in races for which the voter was qualified.

In this dispute, as in other areas, Democrats leaned toward easing access to the ballot by simplifying voter identification, reducing provisional ballots and allowing online voter registration.

Republicans resisted, citing voter fraud, even though cases of deliberate fraud are extremely rare. No Republican stood up to say he or she favors restricting access to the ballot, but that is what many are driving at, based on voter demographics such as education, income levels and frequency of moves.

They're betting that the tougher the rules, the more likely it is that more Republican voters than Democratic voters will successfully navigate them.

So, there are fans of politics as usual, it turns out, quietly ensuring the continuation of the status quo.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or e-mailed at slhoffman@thebeaconjournal.com.

As the legislature rushed toward its summer break last week, it sounded as if significant support was building for much-needed tuneups to the state's electoral machinery. In the end, repairs were left undone.