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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.