Created on Tuesday, 08 April 2014 Written by JULIE CARR SMYTH, AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In an escalating dispute, the leader of Ohio's largest county asked federal investigators on Tuesday to determine if new state procedures for providing absentee ballots are intended to suppress Democratic and minority votes.
Cuyahoga County executive and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald announced the request at a Cleveland news conference.
He is challenging a recently passed law barring county elections boards and other public officials from mailing unsolicited, absentee-ballot applications to registered voters, as well as a budget bill amendment made Monday in the Republican-dominated Ohio House that would strip 10 percent of local government funding from counties that violate the law.
A vote by the Cuyahoga County commissioners is scheduled for Tuesday on a proposal by FitzGerald for the county to assert its home-rule powers to mail early ballots to all voters there.
"As a former FBI agent, this is not a decision that I make lightly, but a thorough investigation is clearly warranted to examine the recent actions that would make it harder for working men and women to vote in 2014," FitzGerald said. "I am especially disappointed that, unless they get their way, some politicians in Columbus are willing to hold hostage taxpayer funds that help ensure public safety here in Cuyahoga County."
Secretary of State Jon Husted said in a phone interview before FitzGerald's announcement that a reasonable resolution was possible. He said Cuyahoga County's intentions regarding absentee ballots were redundant and illegal, but he also criticized fellow Republicans in Columbus for threatening monetary sanctions.
Under Ohio law, all voters will receive absentee ballots in the mail ahead of the November general election, Husted said.
"There's no reason for Cuyahoga County to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and violate the state law for a service that's already being provided," he said. "Having said that, it's no reason to cut the local government fund and penalize the people there for the actions of their leaders."
House Finance Chairman Ron Amstutz told reporters Tuesday that the budget amendment could change.
"We are looking at a range of possibilities that would include a different approach or a different timing even, too," he said.
In his letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, FitzGerald said recent state laws signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich are circumventing mechanisms the county had put in place to reach a population heavy with renters, transient residents and the homeless.
That included same-day registration and voting, expanded weekday and weekend hours, and mailed absentee applications complete with postage-paid envelopes, FitzGerald wrote.
"These solutions were successful," he said. "The State, however, has jettisoned the very solutions that proved successful in resolving elections problems in Cuyahoga County."
With nearly 1.3 million residents, Cuyahoga County is home to about 11 percent of Ohio's population. About a third of residents are black and a majority Democrat.
Husted defended the uniform voting hours that Ohio has put in place across the state.
"The state law, federal court rulings and common sense dictate that all voters should vote by the same set of rules," he said. "That's the definition of equality. It's not 'Animal Farm': Some people are more equal than others."
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.