Fighting dirty in Ohio

The state's Republicans have made complex changes to voting rules, with a simple aim: disenfranchising working class communities who are not likely to support them.

Ohio is one of the most important states in this election, and both parties are fighting tooth and nail: not just on the doorsteps, but in the courtrooms as well, mobilising armies of lawyers and wrestling for every angle and advantage they can. Sometimes these tactics can get dirty. The Republican state government of Ohio, and its Secretary of State Jon Husted, knows this well. Democrats accuse it of disenfranchising poorer and minority voting with two separate actions: a controversial voter ID law and a series of complex changes in the hours and availability of early voting.

Early voting begins on October 2, allowing people to cast their vote in person at any time in the five weeks from then until the election. How many people use this option is dependent on several factors, especially the opening hours of the polling stations, which have gone through a number of changes this year. It is a significant factor in elections: in the 2008 Presidential race in-person early voting accounted for 265,048 votes; Obama's margin of victory over McCain in Ohio was just 262,224.

Earlier this year, with almost unbelievable gall, Husted was allowing rural (Republican-run) counties to extend their planned early voting hours into the evenings and weekends, while denying the same opportunity to more industrial, poorer and urban Democrat counties. The New York Times called him out on this in August. Democrats and the Obama campaign cried foul, and Husted was forced to impose uniform hours over the whole state. Democrat campaigners now argue that the hours Husted has imposed are meagre – 8AM until 5PM for the first three weeks, then until 7PM; and only on weekdays; and closed on the the last three days before election day – and so they still discriminate against working-class and poor (and likely Democrat) voters.

An uneasy peace appeared to reign while various aspects of these rules were worked through the courts – the cases are still ongoing; this will be a very litigious campaign – but the flames of controversy were relit by Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin county Republican party, who was accused of racism after telling a newspaper in the state capital Columbus: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban – read African-American – voter-turnout machine.”

Pete Gerken is the President of the board of election commissioners of Lucas county, in the north of the state. He is a Democrat. “Just in this county alone [in the 2008 Presidential election], 28,000 people voted early, 5000 of those on weekends,” he tells me. “Any redrawing of early voting hours is an attempt to suppress people's ability to vote. The majority of people who use early voting, especially those who need it to be after work or on weekends, tend to be Democrat. They're working-class, they're working people; they can only get there after work.”

Running parallel with the early voting argument is another row, about the new voter ID laws that Ohio and a number of other states have just adopted. These new laws demand that voters, who could previously present themselves at the polling station with just a utility or rent bill as identification, must now produce state-issued photo identification at the polling station. This, opponents say, discriminates heavily against minorities and the poor, who are statistically far, far less likely to have photo ID – or indeed to have heard of the new law.

“The Republican officials in the State who passed the laws are doing it under the flag of preventing voter fraud,” says Gerken. “But there hasn't been any fraud – it's a problem that doesn't exist in the state of Ohio. In the last four years there have been less than ten charges of voter fraud in the whole state. They're trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist, and trying to fix it with a jackhammer. What is happening is people are being taken out of the queue – people who don't drive, the poor, the elderly. It disenfranchises people from their right.

“It's a strategy. It's a strong strategy, and [the Republicans are] trying it in lots of states. … It flies in the face of our democratic values, and I don't think they care.”

Pennsylvania is one of the states in which the voter ID row has been loudest. Here, according to a study by Matt Baretto at the University of Washington, around an eighth of the electorate, more than a million voters, are currently without state photo identification for one reason or another; and only 34 per cent are aware of the new law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently debating the issue, and will announce its decision in the next couple of weeks. It will be big news when it does.

In Ohio, Husted - despite being ordered by a district court judge to reinstate early voting on the last three days before the election - has not yet done so; claiming that to act while the ruling is still being appealed would “futher confuse voters”. In this, he is probably right. The tooth-and-nail legal battles being fought over these issues can only further alienate voters from the process – but in a state that might come right down to the wire, to the candidates each battle is absolutely crucial. Which means, unfortunately for fans of a nice clean contest, it's going to be no-holds-barred right up until election day.

Previously in this series: How the fighting talk fizzled from Mitt Romney's party

Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Painesville, Ohio. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.