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

But lately Husted's views seem to have hardened. At a Tea Party event in September, for example, he declared that he was in favor of "streamlining" Ohio's voter identification laws, a position voting rights advocates took to mean that Husted now supports restrictions that could suppress legitimate votes in 2013 and beyond. At the time, a spokesman for the Secretary of State downplayed the apparent shift, saying that Husted's comments to the Tea Partiers were "environmental in general" and that Husted had not changed his tune.

Husted also has flirted with the conservative "True the Vote" movement, a group whose members today are roaming the countryside looking for voter fraud. In August, he agreed to speak at a True the Vote summit before cancelling. Ten days ago, confronted by a group of state senators alleging "a serious threat of intimidation" against minority voters, Husted's spokesman said the Secretary of State would "act swiftly to investigate and seek prosecution of any offenders." Is it reasonable today to trust that he will?

PROVISIONAL VOTING

Husted was wrong about early voting in Ohio. Wrong but not uncertain. Just before Judge Economus slapped down Husted's early voting directive, the Secretary of State fired two local Democratic officials, popular veterans of the job, who had sought to use their own discretion under state law to expand voting hours back to where they had been since 2005. A recap: You had three election officials. Two who wanted to make it easier for legitimate voters to vote. And one who wanted to make it harder for people to vote. It was the latter who fired the former.

If Husted's bad judgment were limited to the early voting fight, if this were the only partisan effort he had made to suppress the votes of certain registered voters, you might be able to argue that it was an exception to the rule. But Husted also has taken another divisive position with respect to another federal court ruling that stymied state voter suppression efforts. This time, the state's top election official is arguing that votes cast in the wrong precincts shouldn't ultimately be counted even if the mistake is the fault of poll workers and not the voter.

The 6th Circuit ruled earlier this month that such ballots now must be counted. But as late as last week, Husted and his lawyers were still in court fighting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley, in Columbus, who declared that registered voters in Ohio couldn't be disenfranchised because of the misdirections of poll workers. The threat of thousands of legitimate votes not being counted was not abstract but very real, Judge Marbley noted -- it had happened before, just last year, under Husted's watch. Judge Marbley wrote:

In 2011, more than 1,800 disqualified provisional ballots were cast in the "right location, wrong precinct" while more than 2,400 disqualified ballots were cast in the "wrong location, wrong precinct." The State of Ohio denied these citizens their right to vote by systematically disqualifying all ballots cast in the wrong location or wrong precinct, with no individual due process or inquiry into the cause of the ballot error.

Husted's response? Calling it a "vote anywhere" concept, Ohio's top elections official said that checking these ballots more carefully to ensure that these mistakes wouldn't be made, checking them so thousands of legitimate Ohio voters would have their votes counted, would unduly burden poll workers and elections officials on Election Day. It is the same argument he had made, and lost, when he had argued against restoring early voting days to their 2005 level. Does this give you confidence that Ohio's votes will be counted fairly and accurately?

THE MOMENT

As Secretary of State, Husted is Ohio's Chief Elections Officer, representing all registered voters in a position that cries out for nonpartisan governance. The state's law and policies offer platitudes about how election officials "play an important role in our democracy" by ensuring "their neighbors can vote with ease on Election Day, while helping to safeguard the process so all Ohioans can have confidence in the results." You can find these lofty pronouncements on Husted's office website.

I guess it all depends upon what your definition of the word "confidence" means. Husted wants his constituency, the state's conservatives, to be "confident" that the state is cracking down on voter fraud, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Ohio or anywhere else. But taking away early voting rights from Ohio citizens has nothing to do with voter fraud. Nor does discounting provisional ballots cast mistakenly as a result of a poll worker's error. These are voter suppression efforts in their purest forms.

Now turn the word "confident" around. By law, Husted is supposed to represent all voters. Given his public pronouncements and litigation over the past year, what confidence should minority voters in Ohio have that their votes will be counted under Husted's direction? Think of all the time and energy he has spent in the state trying to make it harder for people to have their votes counted. Now think of what Ohio's election might look like if the state's chief elections officer had devoted that time and energy to ensure broad voting rights.

Last week, the New York Times' Nate Silver predicted that Ohio had a 50-50 chance of deciding the election. Why should America trust Jon Husted to neutrally oversee Ohio's voting process? What has he done in the past year to earn this trust? Speculation suggests that Husted has his sights on higher political office. Well, he's got what every starry-eyed local pol wants when he dreams of bigger things: a national audience. In fact, the whole world is watching, and waiting, to see if this man can meet his moment and do the right thing.


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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