WHEN I HEARD the sound of loud drumming on a sleepy Toledo street on a Tuesday afternoon, I knew I had come to the right place. I followed the beat to a garage, where I found a guy in his forties hammering away on a large drum kit. He no longer had the shaggy hair or the leather jacket, but I knew it was Jon Stainbrook, the frenetic former drummer of ‘80s punk band The Stain.
In its heyday, The Stain released an album and a couple EPs, and played venues in New York and Hollywood. It had a small group of hard-core fans, although its peak notoriety came from taking more famous bands to court for trademark violations, such as in the case of The Stain v. Staind. To be clear, I am not actually a fan of The Stain, which I had never heard of until a month ago. I had tracked down Stainbrook because he is the most important Republican official in one of the most important counties in Ohio and I needed to ask him some questions about the election.
Ever since Mitt Romney closed the gap in many swing states, it has become clear that the 2012 election could hinge on Ohio. And if the margin there is narrow, scrutiny will fall on the voting process—especially in cities, which contain large African American populations and where accusations of both voter fraud and voter suppression are most intense. Stainbrook sits on the board that oversees elections in Lucas County, which encompasses Toledo and is the fifth-largest county in the state. Should things get messy on Election Day, it will be obscure local officials like him who’ll make key decisions about who gets to vote and who doesn’t.
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.
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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. “The Republican Party had a choice,” says Lucas County’s Democratic treasurer, Wade Kapszukiewicz. “They could tweak their policies, they could adjust their positions to appeal to this new, emerging America—God forbid. Or—and this is what they’ve decided to do—’Heck, we’ll just stop these people from voting.’”
When I entered the garage, which was behind the headquarters of the Lucas County Republican Party, Stainbrook stopped drumming and ordered me out. On the sidewalk, his arms flying, he demanded to know whether I had a tape recorder and shouted that he was going to call the police. Things could have gotten pretty ugly if Joe the Plumber hadn’t shown up.
Joe—that is, Samuel Wurzelbacher—is running for a congressional seat near the Toledo area on a hard-right platform; in August, he suggested that border patrol officers “start shooting” at suspected illegal immigrants. He smiled genially, shook my hand, and headed inside, leaving me feeling as if I’d just met a fictional character, like Bob the Builder. His presence seemed to calm Stainbrook a bit. “He’s a heckuva guy,” he observed. I asked him to explain the recent goings-on at the elections board. “I’m offended some would accuse me of trying to disenfranchise [voters],” he told me. His real concern, he added, was preventing electoral abuses by Democrats. “I’m like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves,” he said. “It’s Fort Apache up here.”
BATTLES OVER THE BALLOT have a long and sordid history in American politics. But the modern-day voting panic was sparked by the fiasco in Florida in 2000, which demonstrated that the technicalities of ballot design and voter lists could decide the presidency of the United States. The two parties reacted very differently to this revelation. In order to ensure that supporters’ votes will be counted, Democrats have sought reforms, such as expanding early voting to prevent long lines and monitoring purges of voter rolls.
Republicans, by contrast, have tended to view voting in the context of the party’s looming demographic problems. Non-whites overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. But 20 years ago, minorities made up only 13 percent of the electorate. This year, they comprise at least twice that figure. In response, Republicans have pushed for voting restrictions that would have a disproportionate effect on minorities. As a justification, they’ve invoked the threat of voter fraud—a phenomenon that has repeatedly been shown by exhaustive studies to be virtually nonexistent.
Nevertheless, the voter fraud myth has become a cause in nearly every Republican-led state capitol this year. “A lot of blood has been shed to preserve our freedoms—not for people to allow their votes to be diluted by people who should not be voting,” Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos told me. In South Carolina, a constituent e-mailed his Republican state representative to complain that black voters would be “like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon” if they were offered a monetary reward for obtaining photo identification. “Amen,” the state representative replied. In Florida, where Republicans have limited early voting this year, State Senator Mike Bennett said he didn’t “have any problem making [voting] harder.” He explained: “I want the people in the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who is willing to walk two hundred miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.”
Since the start of 2011, governors have signed into law 23 bills that impose constraints on voting. Many require voters to produce government-issued photo identification, which can be burdensome to obtain for minorities, young people, and the elderly. A study by New York University’s Brennan Center found that 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Hispanics lack a government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of white Americans.
The most stringent measures have been implemented in deep-red states such as Kansas: Unlike many other states, it won’t allow people without a valid ID to sign an affidavit in order to vote. But it is in battlegrounds like Ohio where these efforts could swing the outcome of the presidential race. In a game of inches, everything counts and anything goes.
In 2004, that mindset led Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to, among other things, reject piles of voter registrations, because they were printed on insufficiently thick paper stock. That November, a shortage of voting machines predictably caused huge lines in urban precincts, dissuading thousands from voting. In addition, around 30,000 ballots were thrown out due to minor flaws—such as being cast at the wrong table in the right polling location. When Democrats took power in 2006, they expanded early voting to prevent a repeat occurrence of these debacles. (Blackwell’s successor, Jennifer Brunner, also came under scrutiny for trying to reject some absentee ballots from Republicans on tenuous grounds.)
In 2008, African Americans took particular advantage of early voting. In Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, 42 percent of in-person early voters were black, although African Americans make up less than a quarter of the county’s adult population. In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, African Americans comprise 28 percent of the population but made up more than half of early voters. Turnout was especially high on the last weekend before Election Day—some 100,000 people voted throughout the state, which President Obama won by four percentage points.
When Republicans reclaimed the state government in 2010, the pendulum swung back, hard. The GOP passed legislation cutting back the 35-day early voting period and eliminating a requirement that poll workers ensure voters were at the correct precinct. The implication was clear: In-person early voting benefited Democrats, whose minority and working-class supporters were more likely to have trouble getting to the polls on a weekday, especially in crowded urban precincts. (In fact, any effort to make voting easier helps Democrats, since they poll better than Republicans among people who don’t usually vote. When access to the polls is expanded, Democrats stand a greater chance of winning over the disaffected.)
Ohio Democrats threatened to put the new voting law to a referendum. Fearful of a backlash, Republicans repealed the legislation but preserved a separate measure decreeing that only members of the military and their families could vote on the weekend before Election Day. So Democrats took to the courts, with some success. Federal judges ruled that all citizens should be allowed to vote on the final weekend—a ruling that Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal courts also ordered Ohio to count ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct as a result of poll worker error.
But Republicans did prevail on the broader question of early voting hours. In 2008, Ohioans in most big cities could vote on weekends for a month leading up to November 4. This year, both Democrats and Republicans on the election boards of large Republican-leaning suburban counties approved a similar schedule. But in several Democratic-leaning urban counties, including Lucas, Republican members opposed weekend voting. It fell to Husted to break a series of 2-2 ties, and he repeatedly sided with the Republicans. The result was that many large GOP-leaning counties had weekend hours while many large Democratic-leaning counties did not. After an uproar, Husted announced uniform statewide hours—no weekends anywhere.
In 2008, nearly 200,000 people—roughly equivalent to Obama’s 2008 margin in Ohio—voted during the non-working hours that Husted has eliminated. A disproportionate share of those votes was in cities containing substantial populations of Democrats. Evening and weekend votes made up half of the early ballots in Franklin County (which includes Columbus) and more than a third in Montgomery County (which includes Dayton).
Two Democrats on the Montgomery County board were so outraged that they moved to preserve the weekend hours, in defiance of Husted’s ruling. When they refused to back down, Husted removed them from their posts. In mid-September, I attended a meeting of the board in its cramped basement office. The new Democratic members that Husted had appointed to replace the renegades were tentative, asking basic questions about election operations. Afterward, one of the Republicans, Greg Gantt, assured me that eliminating weekend hours would have little impact: “There’s no way any decision or policy we’ve made will disenfranchise anybody.”
Ohio Republicans also like to point out that Husted is sending absentee ballots to all Ohio voters—although they neglect to note that Republicans are likelier to vote by mail. In August, Doug Preisse, a Republican member of the Franklin County board of elections, was more candid about the underlying motivations in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.”
IN OCTOBER, billboards appeared in African American neighborhoods in Cleveland bearing a picture of a judge’s gavel and the words: “Voter fraud is a felony: up to 3½ years & $10,000 fine.” The billboards’ owner—part of the Clear Channel conglomerate co-owned by Bain Capital—has declined to reveal the buyer. Meanwhile, deejays on local hip-hop stations are urging listeners to get to the polls. So far, early voting has been heavy. In Cuyahoga County, more than 1,000 people turned out each day during the first week—far more than four years ago.
It is tempting to see the frenzy over voting this year as an ugly aberration, prompted by bigotry over Obama’s own racial background and partisan anxiety over a Republican candidate who has struggled for most of the race to make his mark. But in Ohio, as elsewhere, the departure of Candidate Obama will not be enough to halt the vendetta against the elusive fraudulent voter. At a Tea Party meeting in Columbus, Husted recently predicted that voter ID would be on the state’s legislative agenda next year. In several states, such as Pennsylvania, laws that were put on hold this fall because of court challenges will be in full effect next time around. If the Supreme Court overturns key parts of the Voting Rights Act next year—and many predict it will—Southern states will be able to pass new restrictions on voting without Department of Justice approval for the first time since 1965. And should Mitt Romney win in November, he has made it clear that his administration would be far more deferential to state’s rights on the question of election rules. None of these causes are likely to help the Republican Party much over the long term, of course, despite their obvious appeal in the here and now. But taking a different course would require a fundamental rethinking of party identity at levels far above Joe the Plumber and The Stain.
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Holy Toledo: The Campaign to Steal Ohio.”