Editorial: We need a fair, free vote on Nov. 6

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Much has been written, blogged and tweeted about the voting rights battle in the presidential race – Republicans passing laws to prevent "fraud," Democrats vowing to fight voter "suppression."

What hasn't received as much attention is the role of election officials who have power over the mechanics of voting. When the outcome is expected to be so close, whether it's easier or harder for certain people to vote in the hotly contested swing states could make all the difference.

Several Republican secretaries of state in key battlegrounds have taken actions that seem to have partisan motives.

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has publicly declared that President Barack Obama must be "stopped," is a ringleader in a concerted effort targeting noncitizens who are suspected of registering to vote – a purge that critics say could disenfranchise eligible voters.

In Iowa, Secretary of State Matt Schultz issued "emergency" rules to remove noncitizens from voter rolls. A Latino rights group and the American Civil Liberties Union sued; a state judge has blocked the rules, saying they create fear among new citizens who are entitled to vote.

In Florida, Secretary of State Ken Detzner is also seeking to purge noncitizens. The U.S. Justice Department and voting rights groups challenged him, but a federal judge ruled this month that he can continue.

There's no proof that any fraud is widespread. Gessler has been able to identify about 440 potential noncitizens out of 3.5 million voters. Detzner initially targeted 2,600 voters, but by earlier this month, the number was down to fewer than 200 out of 11.4 million registered voters.

It's not that much of a stretch to see the real goal as intimidating thousands of legitimate voters who happen to be new citizens, particularly Latinos who heavily favor Obama. Anyone who is caught in these purges should get every opportunity to prove they're properly registered.

In all the maneuvering by election officials, the secretary of state in Ohio appears the most likely candidate to be this election's Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state in 2000 who certified George W. Bush's disputed victory over Al Gore.

Jon Husted – a rising GOP star and former state House speaker who is being groomed to run for governor – has already drawn fire for trying to game the voting system.

First, he tried to limit early voting hours in predominantly Democratic counties, while allowing longer hours in Republican ones. In the uproar that followed, he backed down and ordered all counties to have the same hours. Then, he fired two local election officials, both Democrats, who tried to extend weekend hours.

Husted also backed to the hilt a law passed by the Republican state Legislature to ban in-person early voting in the three days before Nov. 6 for everyone except military personnel – a change from the 2008 election, when about 105,000 Ohioans voted during that period.

Early voting is crucial to Obama's chances; one poll released last week showed him leading 60 percent to 30 percent among those who said they had already voted – the reason he held a 49 percent to 44 percent lead overall.

After the Obama campaign sued to throw out the law, a federal judge ruled that it is unconstitutional. Husted didn't give up, taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the high court wisely turned down his appeal.

He grudgingly accepted the decision, but who knows what else he might have up his sleeve before, during and after Election Day.

Husted knows the history and the political math. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. If Obama loses Ohio, he would likely need to nearly sweep the other swing states to reach the required 270 electoral votes.

In our hyper-partisan, deeply divided country, the last thing either side should want is a tainted election that isn't accepted as legitimate by the losers. We don't need anything close to a repeat of 2000.

One way to prevent the nightmare of a disputed election is for secretaries of state – whatever their party loyalty – to uphold their solemn vows to all voters. They need to discharge their duties "faithfully and impartially," as Husted promised when he took office.

No matter your political persuasion, we should all be able to agree on that.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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