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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.