Ohio Republicans have already imposed a slew of voting restrictions in the nation’s most pivotal swing state. But now, they may be gearing up for a renewed push on the most contentious tactic of all: voter ID.
The Ohio Christian Alliance (OHA), a conservative group, said last week they’re launching a campaign aimed at getting a voter ID measure passed, either by the legislature or by voters themselves. The effort is already giving heart to Republican voter ID supporters.
Here’s how the OHA initiative works: If the group gathers 100,000 signatures by the end of the year, lawmakers would have four months to act on a voter ID bill the group has drawn up.
“When 100,000 Ohioans weigh in, they pay extra attention to it,” Chris Long, the group’s president, told msnbc. If the legislature does nothing, the campaign would need an additional 275,000-plus signatures to put the question on the 2016 ballot—where it could help juice conservative turnout for the presidential race.
But the campaign could bear fruit much sooner. The real impact may be to pressure lawmakers to advance an existing voter ID bill, which has been stalled in the legislature.
State Rep. John Becker, a Republican, who introduced that bill last September, said that if the OHA campaign appears strong, it would increase the chances that his bill gets a vote—since lawmakers would prefer their own measure than one written by an outside group.
“If the General Assembly passes the law, then they get to control the language,” Becker, who appeared at a press conference Thursday in support of the OHA campaign, told msnbc. “If it’s a ballot initiative, then Chris Long gets to control the language. That’s why his initiative is a boost to my bill.”
Currently, Ohioans must show proof of identity at the polls, but it doesn’t have to include a photo—meaning utility bills, bank statements, or paycheck stubs are fine. Both Long’s initiative and Becker’s bill would instead require a government-issued photo ID.
Voter ID laws tend to poll relatively well, meaning a ballot initiative could stand a chance of passing. But courts lately have struck down voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas.
Buckeye State Republicans have been cautious about pushing voter ID—apparently wary of taking on a divisive and hot-button issue in a swing state that has twice voted for President Obama. Becker’s bill hasn’t received a hearing. And Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, came out against an earlier voter ID bill, effectively killing it.
Husted, who is being challenged for reelection this fall by voting rights champion State Sen. Nina Turner, doesn't sound enthusiastic about the OHA effort. "His legislative priority right now is getting online voter registration passed, which will continue to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat in Ohio," Matthew McClellan, a Husted spokesman, told msnbc.
Long’s group, OHA, has spent years compiling a record of voting irregularities that, it argues, shows fraud is a genuine threat. Evidence of potential illegal voting “has really shaken the confidence of people in Ohio,” Long said.
In reality, an exhaustive report released last year by Husted, no voting-rights champion, found just 135 possible voter-fraud cases out of around 5.63 million votes cast. Not a single case that would have been stopped by a voter ID law has turned up.
The new push for voter ID is just the latest chapter in a voting rights battle that’s been going on in Ohio for almost a decade. In 2004, the state was a poster child for election problems, as some voters waited ten hours or more to cast ballots. Democratic areas were especially hard hit. After Democrats gained control of the legislature, they instituted early voting and other measures aimed at taking the pressure off Election Day. In 2008, things went smoothly. But when Republicans came back to power in 2010, they began working almost immediately to restrict voting again.
Over the last six months, Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed laws that ended same-day voter registration, cut six days of early voting, made it easier to reject provisional ballots, made it harder to obtain an absentee ballot, and reduced the minimum number of voting machines that counties must have on hand, among other steps. In February, Husted issued instructions that eliminated Sunday and evening voting. The ACLU has challenged the early voting cuts—alleging, citing reams of evidence—that they disproportionately affect African-Americans.
The voter ID campaign isn’t the only effort to put voting rights issues directly in front of Ohioans. African-American leaders and voting rights groups are currently gathering signatures in order to get a “Voters Bill of Rights” on the ballot this fall. If approved by voters, the measure would bar voter ID requirements, among other provisions.