Ray Oldham, who stays at a homeless shelter in Cleveland, said, "People died and was oppressed so I can vote, and I want to have a say." Credit: Will Evans/ Reveal

Sally Miller had a dream that her vote wouldn’t count this year – and she had good reason to be concerned.

In 2014, thanks to laws passed by the Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature, her ballot was cast aside.

Miller is 88 and has macular degeneration. So when she sat down to vote by mail in 2014, she used the big magnifying glass she keeps on the arm of her easy chair. She checked her work a couple of times.

But she made a mistake: One digit of her Social Security number was wrong.

Sally Miller, of Columbus, Ohio, learned that her 2014 ballot wasn't counted because of a minor error.
Sally Miller, of Columbus, Ohio, learned that her 2014 ballot wasn’t counted because of a minor error. Credit: Will Evans/Reveal

“They didn’t count my vote,” she said on Monday, sitting in the living room of her Columbus, Ohio, house, a Hillary Clinton yard sign out front. “And it made me angry because I don’t usually make mistakes. … If they had told me I would have changed it.”

Before a pair of 2014 state laws requiring technical precision on ballot forms, Miller’s vote would likely have counted. Thousands of other ballots were tossed as well, sometimes for something as minor as writing in cursive. A Reuters analysis found that the rules were more strictly applied in Democratic-leaning urban counties like where Miller lives, than in Republican-dominated rural ones.

It’s unclear how many votes were invalidated for minor errors in the 2016 election. It wouldn’t have affected the presidential race because Donald Trump won decisively in Ohio, with 52 percent of the vote.

But voting rights advocates say the laws that tripped up Miller are part of a decade-long effort to restrict voting in Ohio that is likely to continue.

Across the nation, new state laws have made it harder to vote for people of color and the poor, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 weakened the Voting Rights Act. In Ohio, legislators instituted ID requirements for voting in 2006. More recently, they eliminated the period when Ohioans could register and vote at the same time. Another bill prohibited poll workers from helping voters unless they said they were blind, disabled or illiterate.

“Every two years there’s some new strategy to depress the vote and some new way to make it harder for low income and elderly people to participate,” said Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, on the other hand, likes to say, “we are making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Davis’s homeless organization has been battling Husted in the courts. Some of the laws, like the one that invalidated Sally Miller’s vote, were ruled this year to be discriminatory against black voters. But the state’s lawyers appealed, arguing before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that “these laws are a guardrail, not a barrier – they keep people on the straight and narrow.”

The higher court reinstated many of the restrictions before Election Day.

Ken Payton picked up people from Cleveland homeless shelters to bring them to the polls.
Ken Payton picked up people from Cleveland homeless shelters to bring them to the polls. Credit: Will Evans/Reveal

On Tuesday morning, Ken Payton, who works for the homeless group, pulled up his pastor’s big red van in front of The City Mission’s Crossroads Men’s Crisis Center.

A security guard called out on the PA system to the homeless men inside: “Come down to intake if you want to go vote.”

Ray Oldham came outside with a black hoodie pulled over his Cleveland Indians baseball cap. Oldham, 64, was grateful to get a ride. He wasn’t sure how he’d get to the polls by bus and still get to his therapy class.

“People died and was oppressed so I can vote, and I want to have a say,” he said. “I’m not letting that work go for nothing.”

Then he smacked right up against one of Ohio’s challenges to homeless voting.

“Can I see your ID?” a poll worker asked Oldham, on the floor of a community center gymnasium.

Oldham pointed to the name tag from his shelter, hanging around his neck. He pulled out a certificate for completing a program there. “All this is me,” he said.

That didn’t count. The poll worker asked for some alternative forms of ID: a current utility bill, a pay stub or a bank statement. Oldham tried to quickly explain how he ended up homeless after he got shot. How he was born in a truck and never got a birth certificate.

Eventually, a poll worker let him vote. He slapped his voting sticker next to the grinning logo on his baseball cap. “I love voting,” he said.

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is one of the nation’s most active homeless groups on voting issues. It made sure that everyone who checks into a Cleveland shelter gets a voter registration form. On the streets, people often lose their papers, so the group helps them order birth certificates and apply for ID cards.

Brian Davis is executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
Brian Davis is executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.Credit: Will Evans/ Reveal

“We haven’t had a national discussion about housing since the ’70s,” said Davis, wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers in his cluttered office, a former vacuum factory with peeling paint inside. “So we need to make sure that people who are in most need of housing participate in the process so their issues can come to the forefront.”

Davis’s group sued over the voter ID requirements in 2006. The lawsuit led to a consent decree in 2010 that included an exception: People who don’t have any ID can vote with provisional ballots using the last four digits of their Social Security number.

It doesn’t always work smoothly, though. At the van’s next stop, a polling station inside an east Cleveland apartment complex, poll workers turned away a man who didn’t have an ID.

Oldham, who came with him, tried to advocate on his behalf.

“I got a homeless man here, stays down at the men’s shelter with me, and you’re supposed to give him a provisional ballot,” Oldham said.

The poll workers still wouldn’t offer a ballot. The man, who declined to give his name to a reporter, left without voting.

Later in the day, two civil rights attorneys took the man back to the polls. The attorneys eventually convinced poll workers to give him a provisional ballot.

“It’s worrisome,” Davis said. “I’m worried that other people got turned away.”

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.

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Will Evans was a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee.