Voting Hearing May 7, 2012

Senators Durbin and Brown Host Hearing on Voting

We posted our testimony submitted to the US Senate regarding voting changes in Ohio here.  We also have an entire section of voting on our website in order to educate our constituents about the new challenges to trying to participate in democracy for homeless people.  The bottom line message on all of this is that homeless people need to vote by mail or vote at the Board of Elections early, and the best time is the five day "Golden week" in Ohio.  Enclosed are some observations from the voting hearing held in Cleveland on May 7, 2012. 

Senator Richard Durbin opened the hearing and explained that this is the third in a series of hearings.  The first was in Washington and the second was in Florida.  Republicans and the entire Ohio delegation to Congress were invited, but the only members of Congress attending were Senators Durbin, Brown, and Rep. Marcia Fudge.  The hearing drew around 200 people in two different court rooms with local African American clergy and labor leaders heavily represented.  Durbin made it clear that all of this was based on the fundamental right to vote as the foundation of democracy in America.  He made it clear that he felt that the ability for women, African Americans, and those who did not own property was being harmed because of new rules in Ohio.  He mentioned that even registration activities which had always been non controversial were under attack.  In fact, the Boy Scouts and the League of Women voters in Florida and Texas had stopped registration activities because of the barriers put in place by those state governments. 

The purpose of the hearing was to learn about the changes in Ohio and see if that will disenfranchise Ohio voters in the upcoming Presidential election.  He said that 30% of the voters cast a ballot early either by mail or in person in 2010, and so he wanted to know why early voting was being curtailed in the legislation passed in 2011.  He wanted to learn more about the challenges that were made in court to voting laws.  He wanted to look at the activities of ALEC, a trade association, that has written many of these laws.  Durbin wanted to hear from experts about why the voters of Ohio will not be allowed to vote the weekend before the election despite having 100,000 voters cast a ballot on the last weekend in 2008.  Durbin was clear that he wanted to see the Ohio legislature to repeal HB 194 to reset voting rules to those the state operated under in 2008.  Later in the week that happened, but activists were not satisfied because early voting on the weekend before the November election were not part of the repeal. This looks to be headed to court.

Sherrod Brown was next to talk and he emphasized the needless barriers that had been set up by Ohio legislators to voting.  He spoke with some experience having begun his career in the 1980s as the Secretary of State for Ohio.  [One interesting note:  Brown as Secretary of State was the first Ohio elected official to recognize the problem of homeless people voting and set up rules for their participation in democracy.]  He characterized the recent changes as "shameless attempts to undermine the vote."  He indicated that the overwhelming evidence that voter fraud is almost non-existent in American democracy, and yet all these rules are pitched by supporters as attempts to reduce fraud.  Brown characterized the clouds over the 2004 as one of process (too few polling places and non-working machines) and not problems with individuals fraudulantly voting.  He specifically named the 9 hour wait at Kenyon College and six hour waits in Oberlin as examples of problems faced by his constituents in 2004.  Brown said, "One political party is trying to undermine voting," and was specifically concerned that eliminating the ability to vote on Sunday undermines access to the ballot box by people of color.  He characterized Ohio HB 194 as a solution in search of a problem.

Next to testify was US Representative Marcia Fudge who was concerned that her district and the voters living in her district would be most affected by the changes in Ohio law.  She was proud that over 300,000 people in Ohio stepped forward to challenge these suppression activities.  Fudge, an African American legislator, went further than Brown or Durbin in saying that all of these laws are an attempt to repeal the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s and have to be confronted for moving us back to the Jim Crow days.  She was especially critical of the Ohio legislation that did not require poll workers to direct voters to the proper precinct.  Fudge identified this provision as especially dangerous and could lead to a concerted effort to undermine an election by misdirecting likely Democratic voters to the wrong precinct thus spoiling all those ballots.  She characterized all these efforts as making a mess of the rules in an attempt to confuse the voters. 

Fudge identified 41 states now trying to pass laws that would restict the vote.  She quoted Civil Rights leader and current Representative John Lewis as recognizing voting as "this right is almost sacred," and pledged that she would not allow it to be denied. She was ashamed of those who were trying to undermine the right to vote.  Fudge cited only four cases of voter fraud in the last 10 years of voting in Ohio.  [It should be noted that 3 of those were registration issues and not voting issues, which the Ohio legislation does not deal with].  Rep. Fudge was clear that all of this was just a way to confuse voters so that they did not vote.  Rep. Brown agreed and wanted to know why the absentee ballot was the main of concern with regard to voter fraud and there was no legislation to verify absentee ballots?  Senator Durbin wanted to know why Golden week was under attack.  He specifically asked, "Who would take the risk of five years in jail for voter fraud," and why would you show up at the Board of Elections during Golden Week with 35 days for the Board members to investigate your ballot to assure that it is valid?  This question was never answered by anyone on any of the panels. 

The hearing continued with a second panel of experts, which we will cover in a later post.

Brian Davis

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