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That's why, with the election looming, NEOCH and other plaintiffs have continued to fight. In June 2016, judge Algenon Marbley ruled against those idiosyncratic absentee and provisional ballot policies. In short order, though, the state appealed. The case was kicked up to a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which offered a multi-pronged ruling that agreed with some of Marbley's ruling ("about 75 percent," Chandra says), but largely left the quirky county-by-county absentee and provisional ballot policies intact — despite those policies directly contradicting the 2010 consent decree that remains in effect.
NEOCH asked for a full hearing on the case. The circuit court denied their motion.
"While we are studying our Supreme Court options," Chandra says, "hopes for affected Ohio voters in this close presidential election may well be lost. Voters may never learn that their ballots were not counted."
NEOCH alleges that many state voting laws are enacted specifically to discriminate against minority populations — mostly black populations and those including wide swaths of homeless and disabled voters in large cities like Cleveland. But that invisible cause is also treated as a defense of the laws. When the state faces up to a struggle to reform voting rights, leaders tend once again to specifically target minority populations: Why cater to those people?
"Government doesn't need to spoon-feed voting materials to voters," State Rep. Mike Dovilla said in 2014. (Here's a quick thought experiment: Did you, a Scene reader and a likely Cuyahoga County voter, know that you couldn't use cursive — or anything resembling cursive — on your absentee or provisional ballot? Blame the government or blame the media, but check your handwriting when you choose to vote. What is "cursive," anyway? The state has no answer.)
During committee hearings for SB 205, State Rep. Matt Huffman asked, "Should we really be making it easier for those people who take the bus after church on Sunday to vote?" Remember that black voters have famously adopted "Souls to the Polls" campaigns in previous elections — bus rides that pick up churchgoers and take them to election locations.
That sort of stuff echoes the words of Doug Preisse, former chair of the Franklin County Republican Party and a member of the county board of elections, who said in 2012, "I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine."
Lines like that — public acknowledgments of how elections are run — get a lot of press. Four years later, the statement is sadly still relevant enough to revisit. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation, according to your preferred talking head. And even if the Buckeye State isn't predicted to be quite the bellwether it's usually been in this election, the enflamed racial and ethnic language bandied about during the campaigns has lent cause to increased scrutiny and voter engagement.
Kenneth Payton, a service worker with NEOCH, is driving around the near-westside on Oct. 12, the first day of early voting in Ohio and, by any account, a beautiful fall day on the North Shore. He's picking up registered voters at shelters around Cleveland. This is the first time he's done this for a presidential election. As he sees it, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless helped register these folks; they probably could use a ride to the polls.
He arrives at St. Malachi on West 25th, a church that offers shelter and a community lunch to those in need. It's about noon and, beneath a warm sun, Abner Rondon explains that this election is more frustrating than most. "With these two candidates, I feel like they're holding a gun to my head, and all I can say is, 'Harambe, I'm coming,'" he says. Rondon is 32, and he says he's not quite ready to vote today. He says he still needs to sleep on his decision a bit.
Payton ends up landing only one voter from this church, a guy named Daniel "Shark" Cruz, a Latino voter from Southern California. Shark has lived in Ohio for a few months; he came here to be a part of Northeast Ohio's budding nonprofit scene. He's a Jill Stein supporter.
"I'm ready," Shark says. "It's time for a third party to take the lead." He says he's glad that Payton caught him before work; it's not always an easy process, juggling the mountain of life responsibilities and getting down to East 30th and Euclid to vote. (Shark is later seen running down Euclid, just barely catching an eastbound bus before it departs.)
As federal district court judge Algenon Marbley summed up the case in June 2016, "Plaintiffs further contend that the challenged laws violate Section 2 of the [Voting Rights Act] because they will have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino voters, and that the Ohio legislature in fact intended as much."
Another thing: Eight to 10 percent of the NEOCH homeless population is "absolutely illiterate," according to court filings. And with the known problems associated with filling out an absentee ballot, many volunteers will be in the driver's seat these next few weeks, taking registered voters to the polls. (Poll workers are allowed to help fill out a voter's form if he or she is blind, disabled or illiterate.)
Largely, though, the fight playing out in the courts has two sides: offering Ohioans more or fewer opportunities to vote.
Golden Week, which no longer exists in Ohio, was a window of time at the start of the early-voting period wherein residents could both register to vote and actually vote on the same day and at the same place. It's become a contentious issue over the years, and just this past August the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio's state leaders were within their rights to eliminate Golden Week.
Conversely, another federal court ruling that same month barred North Carolina from implementing certain elements of its voter identification law — its analog to those aforementioned Senate bills in Ohio — that would have mandated the use of government-issued photo ID cards at polling places. The court specifically called out the "racial discrimination" inherent in that law.
The state is "making it easier to vote and harder to cheat," Husted says of his work. Repeatedly.
The "harder to cheat" clause is noteworthy, because that implies voter fraud, the bogeyman that paves the path toward voter identification crackdowns.
Again, though, as the state knows, there is at most an almost imperceptible level of "voter fraud" in Ohio elections. Damschroder said as much during his March 2016 testimony: When asked whether the possibility of voter fraud was a justification for the "five fields requirement," he agreed that it was not. That requirement refers to "name, residence address, date of birth, signature, and some form of ID," the sort of thing that tripped up thousands of Ohioans two years ago and that will trip up thousands this year. (On the national front, a Loyola professor tracked and investigated allegations of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014. Thirty-one credible instances were found out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.)
Absent a lawsuit of the magnitude of NEOCH et al. v. Husted et al., there's no guarantee that the issue would have been publicized.
"They had ways to contact us, because obviously we were registered voters," Gunther says of the Franklin County Board of Elections in 2014. "They didn't make any efforts to contact us — never contacted us. That's what really cranked me up. Even if they were going to question this ballot, which is their right to do — but not to contact us, having agreed that that would be done statewide, that got me fired up pretty good.
"America was kind enough to open its doors to us and allow us to come here," he says. "We became proud Americans."
That's why the Lahms and others have become vocal critics of the way Ohio and its 88 counties have been handling elections lately. When Chandra and his law firm came calling, they answered the request for more voices to fuel this discussion. The couple went so far as to say that they'd fly home from their winter home in Florida to testify. It's important to them.
"We should have more polling places," Gunther says. "We should make it easier. We should want everybody in America to vote, and however that turns out is how it turns out."
Absentee ballots are one avenue toward that idea, and registered voters can still request an absentee ballot through Nov. 5. It's a convenient alternative to the sometimes-very-long lines at polling places around the state on election day. Just don't use cursive.