As voting begins in Ohio, confusion reigns

A series of bills and court decisions this year could disenfranchise thousands of voters in the crucial swing state.

Andrew Kohn (right) with the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates assists a Cleveland State University student on the final day before Ohio’s voter registration deadline. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Andrew Kohn (right) with the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates assists a Cleveland State University student on the final day before Ohio’s voter registration deadline. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

CLEVELAND, OHIO — Andrés Gutierrez, a Colombian engineering student at Cleveland State University, became a U.S. citizen last year so that he could cast a ballot this November.

“I thought it was important,” he told ThinkProgress in Spanish. “The whole country depends on it, and my one vote can really help. I want to contribute to society.”

But had Gutierrez not crossed paths with a volunteer on Monday who reminded him to update his address on his voter registration, he would have shown up to the polls only to be turned away. Tuesday was the state’s deadline for voter registration, and early voting kicked off at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.

Walking around downtown Cleveland, ThinkProgress encountered resident after resident who was unsure when, where, and how they could vote.

Melissa Morea, a 49-year-old server at a downtown diner, assumed she couldn’t vote because she had lost her ID. She was thrilled to learn she only needed her Social Security number to vote by mail or early at the polls. Several Cleveland State University students did not know that early voting was an option, nor were they aware of Tuesday’s registration deadline.

Shalira Taylor, who is running to represent Cleveland in the state assembly, says she has also encountered many voters who are uninformed or misinformed.

“I talked to at least five people just now who were getting off the bus who asked me when they could vote, and I said, ‘Right now!’” she said. “I really think we need to do a better job teaching people about the democratic process: how to vote, what parties stand for, etc. A lot of people are confused.”

Republican state assembly candidate Shalira Taylor hands out fliers outside the Cuyahoga Board of Elections. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Republican state assembly candidate Shalira Taylor hands out fliers outside the Cuyahoga Board of Elections. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Ohio voting rights advocates say they are worried thousands of people could fall through the cracks, the result of a host of strict new rules and almost no effort by the state to educate voters in navigating the system.

A series of bills from Ohio’s Republican-controlled statehouse and rulings from local and federal courts have caused widespread confusion. In the last year alone, courts have allowed the state to slash a full week of early voting, purge millions of eligible voters from the rolls, and toss out provisional ballots if they have an error as small as a forgotten zip code or middle name. Though the voter purge — which has disproportionately hit black, Democratic voters — was halted last week by a federal court, it’s not yet clear if those illegally purged will be added back to the rolls in time to vote. Meanwhile, while the state is legally required to send every registered voter and absentee ballot application, more than a million people — one in seven Ohio voters — did not get one.

In a swing state with a history of tight presidential races, these new laws, errors, and court rulings could mean the difference between a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump presidency.

About 60,000 Ohioans voted during the now-eliminated Golden Week in 2008, and 80,000 did so in 2012. In 2008, black voters were 3.5 times more likely to use Golden Week as white voters. In 2012, they were more than five times as likely. Now, the state offers no days on which voters can register and cast a ballot in a single trip, presenting a barrier to lower-income voters with few transportation options.

In Cleveland, where poverty and housing instability remains high, voters are also more likely to have to cast provisional ballots, which carry their own set of new, strict rules.

“If you write your name in cursive letters where it says ‘print name,’ or write Ben instead of Benjamin, or leave your zip code off your address, the Secretary of State feels fully entitled to disenfranchise you,” explained Subodh Chandra, a Cleveland civil rights attorney who sued the state over the law. “Thousands of voters are going to be disenfranchised, even though they are indisputably eligible voters, under this draconian law.”

Chandra added that the state admitted in court that the law is not being applied equally, and that whiter, rural counties are much more lax in their enforcement of the rules than more diverse, urban counties. A voter in Cleveland, for instance, is more likely to have her ballot thrown out for a small error than a voter in suburban Carrollton. Voters in counties with more Democrats and more people of color were also much more likely to be purged from the voter rolls, as different counties have used different definitions in deciding who is an “inactive” voter. An urban-dwelling voter of color is also more likely to have to wait in a longer line to vote early, as each Ohio county only provides one early voting site whether it is serves a couple thousand or a couple million people.

“There is a disparate racial application across Ohio,” Chandra said.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal from Chandra and the homeless voters he represented on October 7. He is currently considering appealing the case to the Supreme Court. But even if he prevailed, the ruling would likely not arrive in time to help Ohioans in this election.

“Thousands of voters are going to be disenfranchised, even though they are indisputably eligible voters, under this draconian law.”

“Voters will have to be exceedingly careful when filling out those forms,” he urged, “And they should ask for assistance if they need it.”

Even without the avalanche of recent legal changes, voting rights advocates say much of the state’s population is uninformed or misinformed about the voting process, including the poll workers themselves.

Mike Brickner with the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union said some of the most vulnerable populations he works with are people with disabilities, and people with criminal records. “Every year we get reports of people with developmental disabilities being improperly turned away from the polls,” he said. “And so many people think that you can’t ever vote again if you have a felony record, even though that’s not true in Ohio.”

Not only does Ohio allow former offenders to vote, the state allows anyone on parole or probation, and even those currently in jail for a misdemeanor, to participate in elections. Brickner said that after the ACLU presented on the issue to 6,000 Clevelanders, a woman told him, “I had a felony 15 years ago. I’ve been voting ever since but I thought they were throwing my ballot away. Now I know I’m being counted.”

“Every year we get reports of people with developmental disabilities being improperly turned away from the polls.”

Part of the problem, Brickner and Chandra said, is that the state is barely investing any money in voter education, outreach, and poll worker training.

The state slashed the funding available for poll worker training in half over the past year, spending just $232,000 in 2016 to teach more than 35,000 people across the state. The state spent more than $2 million in 2014 on complying with the Help America Vote Act, which makes voter registration accessible. This year they’re spending just $500,000 — a 75-percent reduction. In 2013, the Secretary of State’s office spent $25,000 on a “citizen education fund” to inform voters. That fund was eliminated in 2014.

The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions.

As Election Day nears, the state’s political parties, the national campaigns, and local grassroots groups are stepping up to fill this information and outreach void.

The non-partisan Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates has dispatched more than 100 volunteers to help register and educate voters in under-served Cleveland neighborhoods. They all visited more than two dozen public high schools, and registered between 200 and 300 students who would be 18 by Election Day. The group is also providing buses to take these students to the polls during the early voting period.

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has registered more than 1,200 homeless Clevelanders since June. The Ohio Student Organization reports registering nearly 22,000 new voters. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative registered more than 155,000 voters across Ohio, focusing on impoverished communities like Linden in Columbus, Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, and East Cleveland.

To put that in perspective, George W. Bush won Ohio by just 119,000 votes in 2004, and Barack Obama’s margin of victory was only 166,000 votes in 2012.

Still, advocates worry that confusion about the state’s new voting restrictions will disenfranchise as many people as the restrictions themselves. A 2015 study in Texas in found this to be true: most of the voters who stayed away from the polls because of the state’s new voter ID law actually had the proper documents and did not realize it.