Last Skirmish in the War on Voting

At TNR, Alec MacGinnis has a fine overview of the various efforts by Republicans–particularly in Ohio–to limit the franchise by various means. He chronicles the battles over voter ID laws and early voting, and warns that future voter suppression efforts may be intensified, particularly if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 (or more!) of the Voting Rights Act or a Romney administration refuses to enforce it.

But there’s a tidbit in MacGillis article that points to a problem that may become alarmingly apparent on Election Day in very close states. He’s writing colorfully about former punk drummer John Stainbrook, a minor election official in Lucas County (Toledo):

After drifting away from the music business in the 1990s, Stainbrook rose through the ranks of GOP politics in the county where he grew up, enlisting the help of tattooed, pierced pals from the Toledo club scene to get himself elected chairman of the local GOP. The elections board on which he now serves is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, but over the past year, Stainbrook has carried out something of a coup. He oversaw a personnel purge in the office and installed a sometime girlfriend, Meghan Gallagher, as director. She got the job over the objections of a former Republican elections employee, who alerted the Ohio secretary of state’s office that Gallagher had been arrested in 2002 for allegedly stealing Oxycontin from a patient’s purse in a hospital room. Local Democrats also pointed out that, in 2008, Gallagher had been part of a group of Republicans who filmed voters as they entered polling booths in heavily minority districts—ostensibly to safeguard against voter fraud.

The election board quickly deadlocked. One of its biggest fights was over where to put the early voting location. Democrats wanted a central spot in downtown Toledo; Stainbrook pushed for a site nine miles away in Maumee, which is one-twentieth the size of Toledo and almost entirely white. The Democrats eventually prevailed—but it was only one of numerous battles across the state in which Republicans have embraced tactics to deter Democratic turnout, especially among the state’s growing share of minority voters.

To a greater or lesser degree, depending on state laws, local election officials have significant control over decisions affecting voting rights. As the Toledo example indicates, even where they don’t actually control the local election machinery, they have tried very hard to wreck havoc. But where they do have control–watch out!

So although the focus in terms of voter suppression will inevitably be on the big, Democratic cities where Barack Obama is counting on big margins before and on November 6, the real and much quieter story may play out with minority voters in local jurisdictions controlled by the GOP. That’s a significant part of what happened in Florida in 2000 (a state where election administration remains locally controlled to an extraordinary degree). Don’t be surprised if it happens again this year, in Florida and across the battleground states.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.