Jon Husted: The Powerful Official Behind Ohio’s Vote

Ohio secretary of state Jon Husted is ready for a fight. Come Nov. 7, he may get one — and the presidency may depend on the outcome

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Jay LaPrete / AP

Ohio secretary of state Jon Husted speaks during a rally at the Muskingum County Fairgrounds in Zanesville, Ohio, in 2010

As an All-American defensive back on the 1989 Division III champion University of Dayton football team, Ohio secretary of state Jon Husted played in some big games. Come Nov. 7, he may be a player in the biggest contest in all of politics, with the U.S. presidency riding on the outcome.

Husted makes the rules for how and when Ohio’s votes are cast. In a tight race like the one between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, those rules can determine who wins the state’s 18 Electoral College votes — and the White House. Despite the presence in Ohio of thousands of lawyers for both campaigns, Husted has not shied away from controversy. He fought early voting the weekend before the election all the way to the Supreme Court this year and lost. On Nov. 2, he issued a directive making provisional ballots less likely to be counted by requiring voters to fill out extra paperwork.

As it happened, voter turnout over the weekend was robust, especially in Democratic counties, and in retrospect, Husted’s efforts seemed to some on the left to be anti-democratic. That has made Husted a target for those who say he’s using the office of secretary of state to give the GOP an advantage. “He is the secretary of suppression,” state senator Nina Turner said on MSNBC on Monday. “He tried to suppress every single vote in this state.”

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In an interview with TIME on Monday afternoon, Husted shrugged off the criticism. “My job is to deliver an election that runs smoothly and well,” he said. He added that some of the attacks are politically motivated. “People are going to attack you to obtain political advantage,” Husted said. “The goal of the other side is to make me look bad.” And indeed, some Democrats are comparing Husted to Katherine Harris, the secretary of state of Florida during the disastrous recount in 2000.

Husted is not as easy to caricature as the Democrats would like. As speaker of the Ohio house of representatives, he supported passage of an election-reform law designed to fix the problems of overcrowding that beset the 2004 election. That bill established broad early voting in the state for the first time. In 2011, he opposed an attempt by Ohio’s Republican-led legislature to impose a strict voter-ID law of the sort Democrats successfully fought elsewhere in the country. “I don’t believe that you need to have a photo ID to provide for voter security,” he told NPR last year. And in August, he implemented a rule that allowed 106,000 voters to change their addresses online, which meant they will cast regular ballots, not provisional ones, at the polls on Tuesday.

But if Husted looks moderate from one angle, from another his moderation seems to be as much about political smarts as it is about centrism. In 2010, he campaigned for secretary of state on the idea of leveling the playing field for all voters in Ohio and said he wanted to apply the same rules to everyone. But he found ways of making uniformity work for GOP interests.

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When some counties wanted to expand early voting to after-work hours and weekends, for example, he said he would intervene and enforce traditional rules only if local officials were evenly split on the issue, a seemingly uniform decision that would largely keep voting hours tight.

But because all Ohio counties have two Democrats and two Republicans deciding voting hours, and since Democrats generally see an advantage in longer voting hours, it was heavily Republican counties that ended up with expanded voting hours. Deadlocks came in largely Democratic counties, where the two Republicans tended to vote against expanding the hours. Husted broke the ties in favor of limiting voting hours, and not surprisingly, Ohio ended up with more early-voting advantages for Republicans than before.

When the New York Times highlighted the distinctly non-uniform early-voting rules, Husted quickly passed a statewide rule setting uniform, extended early-voting hours in all 88 counties. He then tried to restrict them on the weekend before the presidential election, the most active time for working class early voters.

(MORE: The Keys to Ohio: Five Counties That Could Decide the Presidency)

Husted defended his handling of the expansion of early voting and his efforts to block voting the weekend before the election. “We have the most liberal voting opportunities of any state in our area, and I settled that issue fairly, uniformly and consistently across every county,” he said.

He also said he’s ready for possible court battles after Tuesday’s vote if there is a recount that challenges some of his recent rulemaking. He said many of the attacks against him are preparing the ground for such court battles. “That’s absolutely the case, and I don’t lament that. It’s just life being secretary of state in the most important swing state in the country,” he said. “People are going to sue and create controversy to prepare the environment for postelection contests.”

Husted said he knew what he was getting into when he decided to run for the office in 2010 after a decade in the state legislature that included four years as speaker. So far, he has chosen his battles with care, showing he has not just a stomach for the contest but the smarts to play through the whole game. That may leave some Democrats in a rage, but it has some Republicans wondering where Husted’s willingness to fight will take him next.

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