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Cuyahoga, OH Dispute Raises Question: Who's in Charge of Elections?

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[Image courtesy of ArtZone]

A fascinating battle is shaping up in Cuyahoga County, OH where County Executive Ed FitzGerald is preparing to ask the County Board to defy a recent directive by Secretary of State Jon Husted prohibiting county election offices from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters by having the County use non-election funds to do so.

The substantive issues in this dispute are important - especially given the growing number of voters in Ohio who cast their ballots outside of a traditional polling place - but just as interesting is the tug of war developing between Husted (a Republican) and FitzGerald (a Democrat) about ultimate control over election policy in Cuyahoga County, which is home to the city of Cleveland and its suburbs.

What's at stake in the Cuyahoga dispute is nothing less than who will have ultimate control of local election policy in Ohio - and maybe elsewhere.

Nationwide, Ohio's Secretary of State is one of the most powerful state officials with regard to election administration. Specifically, the power to issue directives like the one in dispute here - which have the force of law and must be enforced by county boards of elections - gives Secretaries like Husted tremendous influence over the conduct of elections in Ohio.

Yet, within individual counties, county boards of elections are agencies of local government. As such, they are - at least in theory - subject to budgetary control and other methods of influence by locally-elected officials like County Executive FitzGerald.

For almost ten years, the upper hand in this battle has gone to the states. In particular, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 gave state election officials like Husted wide-ranging authority to distribute funding and guide implementation of election reform. More recently, however, as federal dollars faded and partisanship increased, local governments have begun to re-assert their traditional lead role in election administration.

In a time when local governments are cutting back on election spending, the move by Cuyahoga to use its own money to defy the directive is decidedly eye-catching. Of course, Secretary Husted isn't going down without a fight, he has said he will investigate whether or not the State can even process absentee requests received as a result of the County's proposed mailings.

In the short term the battle between Husted and FitzGerald is great theater.

In the long term, the Battle of Cuyahoga could be another turning point in the long-running wrestling match between state and local governments for control of elections.

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