Say Hello to the Ohio Official Who Might Pick the Next President

Didn't like having nine justices decide the 2000 election? Meet Jon Husted.

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Husted at a Republican rally in 2010, after his victory in the race for Ohio secretary of state. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

On August 31st, one day after the Republican National Convention ended in Tampa, a federal judge in Ohio issued a ruling that stymied an effort by Republican officials there to limit early voting dates for hundreds of thousands of registered voters. Citing the United States Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore ruling, the 5-4 decision which ended the 2000 Florida recount, U.S. District Judge Peter Economus wrote that Ohio lawmakers and bureaucrats couldn't, by "arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person's vote over that of another."

Upon receiving word of the federal court order, the man responsible for implementing Ohio's election laws at first decided not to enforce it. Secretary of State Jon Husted, the Republican who had fought for years against voting rights advocates in and out of the courts as a lawmaker and, later, member of the executive branch, initially disregarded Judge Economus' order. Not just that. He defied it. He specifically ordered his county election boards not to restore the early voting hours the judge had endorsed.

It was only when the judge ordered Husted to court to personally explain his disobedience, a sure sign of judicial anger, that Husted relented. Relented -- but did not give up. Husted appealed Judge Economus' ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Ohio. No dice. On October 5th, the 6th Circuit affirmed Judge Economus' order. Husted then appealed again, to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the federal courts shouldn't mess with state election laws. Again, no dice. The justices refused to hear the appeal.

Over the past year, in one election-related fight after another, Husted has proven to be a relentless partisan, the national face of voter suppression. Now, with one week to go before a close election, an election which many political observers believe could come down to Ohio, Husted is about to become something else: an unabashed local partisan who could very well decide who wins by deciding which rules apply. Is America ready for this? Ready for this man to be the one supervising the vote counting in the only state left that seems to matter?

EARLY VOTING

It was hardly a landslide, but Barack Obama won Ohio's 20 electoral votes in 2008 with 51.2 percent of the tally, receiving roughly 200,000 more votes than John McCain. It was the first time a Democrat had won the state since Bill Clinton in 1996, and only the third time a Democrat had won the prize since Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976. In the wake of the 2008 election, concerned that the Obama campaign's "ground game" had overwhelmed their Republican counterpart, state GOP leaders decided to do something about it.

One of the tactics they employed to neutralize the Democrats' advantage in voter registration, and early voting, was to make it harder for likely Democratic voters to cast early "absentee" ballots. Ohio Republicans achieved this goal in June 2011, thanks to a legislature infused with Tea Partiers from the 2010 midterm elections. The lawmakers sought to gut a popular 2005 state law -- one that had been enacted with Republican support -- that allowed registered voters to cast their "absentee ballots" until the day before the election.

But the Republicans' 2011 endeavor was a sloppy affair. The new law, HB 194, conflicted with another Ohio election statute, so legislators quickly passed another election law designed to clarify the intent of HB 194. In the meantime, HB 194 was suspended. In May 2012, Ohio's Republicans passed a third law, repealing HB 194 but not the intervening state law. And then there was the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, the 2009 federal law designed to ensure that service personnel and their families had plenty of time to cast their ballots.

One provision seemed to restrict registered voters' early voting rights. Another seemed to give them broader rights. And a third seemed to give different rights to different groups of voters. But if the texts of the measures were read together, the legislative purpose was as clear as it was unconstitutional: If you were a likely Republican voter, the Republican lawmakers wanted to give you lots of early voting time. But if you were not, lawmakers were looking for justifications to restrict your early voting days.

THE MAN

It was chaos, you could say, and so by law it was left to Husted to make sense of the mix. He was no stranger to these controversial voter laws -- he had help pass some of them. Husted was elected to the Ohio House in 2000. By 2005, he was Speaker of the House. And in 2010, he crossed over to the executive branch as Secretary of State. One of the stated goals of his office? To "provide leadership that builds trust and confidence in Ohio's system of elections through consistent and timely police directives."

The leadership has been there. But on some vital voting rights topics Husted has hardly been "consistent." Last year, for example, he publicly criticized a plan by his fellow Republicans to enact a strict new voter identification law in the state. "I'm for preventing voter fraud," he said, "but I'm also for the disabled Korean War veteran who doesn't drive, who doesn't have access to photo ID, having an easy access to cast that ballot because they too have earned that right." Unlike many other states this election cycle, Ohio did not pass a voter ID measure.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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