The goal of the Ohio Voter Bill of Rights is simple: give voting rights the same constitutional protections afforded to free speech and the right to bear arms.
"I could never understand why our voting rights weren't in the Constitution, and why we had to worry about the Voting Rights Act being renewed every seven years," Ohio state Rep. Alicia Reece told The Wire on Thursday. The driving force behind the effort to get a voting rights referendum on the November ballot, Reece said, "I was told by some of my elders that I shouldn't worry about it, because they would never be, as they said, 'crazy enough' to touch the Voting Rights Act."
The Supreme Court was "crazy enough" to touch the Voting Rights Act. But in Reece's home state, the Ohio GOP and Republican Secretary of State have enacted policies and bills that restrict the voting options most utilized by minority voters, including early voting days, weekend voting, and same-day registration.
Last week, for the second time in two years, a federal court had to order Ohio to reinstate early voting during the three days before an election. In 2012, a federal judge sided with the Obama campaign when it sued Secretary of State Jon Husted for taking away access to early voting. Last Wednesday, a federal court made the ruling permanent after Husted took away Sunday voting again earlier this year.
The Voter Bill of Rights would set the number of early voting days, allow for online registration, and protect votes from poll worker errors. (A 2012 report from the Cincinnati Enquirerfound that thousands of ballots are thrown out each year because poll workers give voters ballots for the wrong precinct.)
It would also prevent lawmakers from changing voting laws without a vote from residents, to stop the state legislature from making changes that only benefit the party in power. "The process now is whoever controls the general assembly controls the vote," Reece said. "Whoever controls the Secretary of State's office controls the vote."
For example: After the 2004 election, Ohio officials launched a bipartisan effort to expanding voting access by instituting a 35-day early voting period and allowing in-person voting at the Board of Elections. Then President Obama won the 2008 election and, "all of a sudden we started seeing all of these changes," Reece said.
The rest of the country has noticed. Last week, the New York Times Editorial Board called Ohio "one of the most egregious" examples of the GOP's attempt to keep certain left-leaning Demographics from voting. "Someday," the board wrote, "after they figure out how to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, Republicans will probably be embarrassed by how much time they have spent making it harder for Americans to vote."
Republicans (who currently control the Governor's office, legislature, and Secretary of State's office in Ohio) have argued that voting rights activists are ignoring the risk of voter fraud, or the need to cut costs, or just want to get Democrats elected. Doug Preisse, county chairman in the Republican Party and an elections board member, voted against the weekend hours option that is more often used by minority voters, in 2012. At the time he told The Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”
In response, the urban voter-turnout machine has mobilized. Reece has been working with 1,200 volunteers and organizations like Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the NAACP, and PowerPAC+, a political action committee that advocates for issues affecting the minority majority, to gather signatures and raise national awareness about the campaign. They'll have to present 385,254 valid signatures to the Board of Elections by July 2 to get it on the November ballot. (Or wait until the next election.) Then, they'll wait and see if Ohio voters will pass the referendum, which would add the Bill of Rights to the state constitution.
"Our goal is to collect as many as we can," Reece said, when asked about the likelihood of collecting all of the signatures. "If not, we will continue to collect and we will make the next ballot." Eventually, Reece and others would like to see the idea of a "Voter Bill of Rights" spread nationally, to "make sure that we tie the hands of general assemblies, so that they cannot change voting rights laws at the whim of who's in charge."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.