In Ohio, misleading messages about military voting

The state's major papers challenge claims about the motives behind an Obama lawsuit

OHIO — The heat of the rhetoric tossed around by the presidential campaigns here seems to be perfectly in tune with summer’s Dog Days.

One particular story in the Buckeye State that has garnered statewide and national attention is a lawsuit filed in mid-July by the Obama campaign and Democratic allies seeking an injunction to block the application of a new state law that alters the rules for in-person early voting here.

Over the past week, the fallout of that move became a major political story here—and to their credit, Ohio’s largest newspapers weighed in with stories that parsed this latest round of pomposity for readers, with all three concluding that the Romney campaign and conservative critics of Obama were misrepresenting the facts.

The battle is over changes the GOP-controlled General Assembly made last year to limit such voting for non-military members, with a new deadline of 6 p.m. the Friday before the election. Previously, all voters had been allowed to vote in person through Monday before the election. An adjustment to the new law maintained the rights of military members and overseas citizens to vote through that Monday.

Obama’s lawsuit, which seeks to have the general public’s early voting rights restored, argued that the new system violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment because it fails to justify the disparate treatment of different groups of voters. That legal argument angered some military groups—15 of whom, including the National Guard Association, Marine Corps League and Military Officers Association of America, intervened in the suit on Aug. 1. As a leader of one of those groups told National Journal, their concern was to defend the principle that it’s legitimate for service members to receive special accommodations.

The storyline started to go off the rails a day after the military groups’ brief was filed, when conservative news sites and advocacy groups started to argue that the Obama campaign was suing “to restrict military voting,” rather than to expand early voting to non-service members. Soon, Romney himself was posting his “outrage” on Facebook, in a message that strongly insinuated—though it didn’t quite come out and say—that Obama was trying to restrict the voting privileges of service members.

Over the next few days, newspapers here persistently pushed back on that suggestion. Probably the clearest and most informative treatment appeared in the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer, which ran a story distributed by USA Today. The piece, by Lori Robertson, did not mince words. It set the tenor and substance of the story early, first with its headline—“Fact check: Obama not trying to curb military early voting”—and then the lead:

Mitt Romney wrongly suggests the Obama campaign is trying to “undermine” the voting rights of military members through a lawsuit filed in Ohio. The suit seeks to block state legislation that limited early voting times for nonmilitary members; it doesn’t seek to impose restrictions on service members.

Robertson’s piece also does a good job laying out the legal concerns of the military groups: “Their beef isn’t with the Obama camp’s intent, however, but with the equal protection argument and how a judge may react to it,” the article states. But it persistently notes how attempts to turn those legal concerns into a political attack hinge on misleading voters. For example:

[Romney campaign legal counsel Katie] Biber goes on to say it is “commendable that the Ohio legislature granted military voters and their families this accommodation.” But that distorts the facts. Military voters and their families previously had this accommodation. What the legislature did last year was restrict early voting for civilian residents.

Elsewhere around the state, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Sabrina Eaton took Romney to task in a long post, filled with back story, at the PolitiFact Ohio page. Of particular note near the bottom of a long first paragraph, Eaton explains the potential electoral impact of the law, and why it is so hotly contested:

In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign used those new laws to its advantage. The campaign made particular use of voting the Sunday before elections in Ohio and other states as African-American churches organized ‘Souls to the Polls’ events that took congregants to vote after religious services.

Eaton had recently explored these themes in a lengthy Sunday story about the voting-rights wars that’s also worth a read. (In a separate story, the PD’s Felesia M. Jackson examined voting restrictions enacted in the last couple of years in 16 states, including Ohio.) Eaton’s PolitiFact entry, which rated Romney’s claims “false,” invites some of the semantic disputes that surround the factchecking sites—Romney’s statement was arguably more misleading than false—but it offers a thorough treatment of the important facts about the lawsuit.

Cincinnati’s at one corner of the state, Cleveland at the other. Right in the middle, The Columbus Dispatch offered its own take, via a pair of items by Joe Vardon. The first noted clearly that while in Nevada, Romney had been asked a question that offered an “inaccurate characterization” of the suit, and added:

The lawsuit does not ask the judge to reduce early voting days for military personnel, which is required to stretch through the day before Election Day by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act. Rather, it reminds the court that all Ohio voters could cast early ballots in person up to Election Day until Republican state legislators in Ohio passed House Bill 194 last year.

That article had a bland headline (“Both campaigns roil over voting suit”). But the point was driven home by the headline on a subsequent story by Vardon: “Experts: Romney’s wrong on early-voting suit.”

Unfortunately, some of the material in the middle of the follow-up may have muddied the waters for readers who haven’t been following the legal twists and turns closely. But the overall point is clear. And it all adds up to a solid showing from the Ohio press about this particular bit of misleading campaign rhetoric.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.