The Democratic candidate for Ohio secretary of state this November is not happy with changes made earlier this year to Ohio's election rules on early voting and the handling of absentee ballot applications.
State Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, who is running against incumbent Secretary of State John Husted, visited Athens Friday and met with local Democratic Party officials at Donkey Coffee.
"For me, the whole thing is making voting simple, convenient and secure," she said. "You can have all three. The way the current secretary of state and this legislature are operating, they're making it seem like there's a clash between security and expansion, but that's not the case."
In February, the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly passed bills that eliminated the "Golden Week," at the beginning of early voting when people could both register and cast an in-person absentee ballot at the same time, and that prohibit county election boards from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, R-Westerville, signed those bills into law, while Husted announced in February his decision to cut early voting on Sundays and weekday evenings for the sake of uniformity across the state.
"Our goal is to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in the voting process no matter which method they choose," Husted said in announcing that decision.
He characterized the new rules as bipartisan, pointing to support from the Ohio Association of Election Officials. Some leading state Democrats, such as Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is challenging Kasich this November, and Turner, who is challenging Husted, disagree.
FitzGerald has been strongly critical of the new voting rules, charging, "Ohioans who will be most harmed by these laws are minorities, who have both struggled in the past to earn the right to vote and who have historically voted for Democrats. If you think Republicans are targeting supporters of their opponents, you're exactly right."
Turner criticized long lines at the polls that she said hinder citizen access to the voting booth because many people walk away due to frustration. She said that the Legislature corrected that sort of problem in a bipartisan fashion after issues in 2004 led to Ohio adopting in-person absentee voting.
"Out of nowhere, to have a Legislature and a secretary of state who is trying to regress us, that should be our concern," she said. "I'm a Democrat and I'm proud of that, but I'm running to make sure everybody has unfettered access to the ballot box. When I'm elected, my party affiliation takes a backseat to wanting to expand and protect access to the ballot box."
She also noted that, beyond the changes already made this year, the Ohio Christian Alliance is making a push for the legislature to pass a photo ID requirement for all voters. If the Legislature fails to do so, the alliance has announced plans to put an initiative on the ballot in 2015.
Athens County Democratic Party Chair Kathy Hecht, who attended the meeting, said that the incidence of voter fraud is very small, and photo IDs won't do anything to stop the cases that do come up.
Turner said that laws are already on the books to catch people for fraud.
"It's very rare that somebody's going to try to commit in-person voter fraud," she said. "They would have to know where you vote, whether you voted or not. And what's the reason? It's not like robbing a bank, where you get money. When you go to vote to try to impersonate somebody, how does that benefit you, facing over three years in prison and a $10,000 fine?"
Turner expressed strong support for online voter registration, which she also referred to as a bipartisan idea that would increase access for voters.
"We should use technology to the advantage of our voters, and also to the advantage of our businesses," she said, citing a bill for such that she put forward even before deciding to run for secretary of state. "It's called the Voter Protection Act, and it has online voter registration in it."
Turner said that state Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, also has proposed online registration and has lobbied the Republican caucus for it but the plan has not gone anywhere.
"I have not heard anything from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle as to why online voter registration is such a threat," she said.
Turner said she understands the secretary of state has the authority to go ahead with online registration administratively, and if she is elected she said she could go that route.
She also expressed her disappointment in the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a key component of the Voting Rights Act in a ruling last summer.
"I'm very frustrated by that," she said. "We've had a bad history in this country when it comes to voting rights, and that's why that act was necessary. And as soon as that was gutted, we saw bills across this country calling for voter ID, cutting hours, do whatever to stop people from going to the ballot box. They gutted one of the strongest civil rights provisions we've had in modern history."