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The War Against Early Voting Heats Up

The ink is barely dry on the report from President Obama’s election administration commission and states are already disregarding its blue-ribbon recommendations, namely around early voting. The endorsement of expanding the voting period before Election Day was one of the strongest components of the bipartisan commission’s report. But yesterday Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted released a new voting schedule that deletes both pre-Election Day Sundays from the  early voting formula. Under the new rules, people can vote in the four weeks before Election Day, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and on the final two Saturdays before Election Day.

The Sunday erasures come in conflict with the “souls to the polls” black church-led campaigns to take their congregants to vote after worship services. When Husted dropped Sunday from the early voting period in 2012 it landed him in court, where a federal judge ultimately forced him to reinstate Sunday voting. In 2008, over 77 percent of people who voted early in Ohio were African-American.   

This time around, Husted took his policy cue from the Ohio Association of Election Officials, a bipartisan group of county election supervisors. In 2012, one of those officials, Doug Priesse, who headed the Franklin County Republican Party at the time, said he opposed early voting because it helped black voters access their ballots.  

The Ohio legislature adopted in-person absentee voting in 2005 in response to Ohio’s seven-hour lines during the 2004 presidential election—the longest in the country. Since its implementation, an increasing number of Ohio voters have taken advantage of early voting each year. In 2012, 600,000 Ohioans—20 percent of the electorate—voted early, and in Cuyahoga County, 41 percent of voters voted early. Many of those voters were voters of color, as Cuyahoga County is nearly 30 percent African-American and nearly five percent Latino.

“I have watched as numerous election laws have passed the General Assembly and yet the bipartisan plan I have advocated for has neither been introduced nor adopted,” said Husted about his new voting directions. “We have a bipartisan solution in this proposal and it is time to implement it.”

Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, who is contesting Husted for his state secretary seat, said the new voting laws solves nothing for the state.

“The weight of the evidence does not support the claims of those who say these bills are necessary,” said Turner in a press statement. “Fraudulent votes are exceptionally rare—just 135 reports out of 5.9 million votes cast in 2012, and only one conviction. Our current laws have proven to be capable of dealing with these few instances. These bills will make it harder for Ohioans to utilize valuable voting opportunities, and put rules in place that will make it easier to throw out valid ballots, without any evidence proving such measures are necessary.”

The reverberations are felt nationally, given that Ohio is a perennial battleground state during major election years.

“Early voting has worked in Ohio since 2005 and the only reason to limit it now is to advance the Republican Party’s political agenda,” said DNC director of voter protection Pratt Wiley. “While Republicans are putting up barriers to the ballot box, Democrats are committed to expanding the electorate and making the voting process a simple and inclusive one for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, Ohio is not the only state looking to shrink its early voting period despite recommendations around expanding it from Obama’s blue ribbon panel. In Georgia, legislators have introduced a bill that would reduce the early voting period from 21 days to six. When civil rights groups appeared at a hearing to voice their opposition to the bill, they were not allowed to speak, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

League of Women Voters of Georgia president Elizabeth Poythress said a drastic cut to the number of early voting days would “silence the voices of those least heard and rarely listened to in Georgia—the poor, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, the young and the disabled.”  

A recent report from election law experts Michael C. Herron and Daniel A. Smith found that Florida’s cuts to early voting in 2012 adversely impacted voters of color. Comparing voting patterns in Florida’s 2012 presidential elections with those of 2008, they found that election participation dropped for people of color, Democrats, and independent voters. Voters who cast ballots on the final Sunday in 2008, for Florida’s own version of “souls to the polls,” were more unlikely to cast a ballot in 2012.

As for Ohio, the early voting cuts come on top of another controversial decision to move one of the state’s most heavily used early voting locations from downtown Cincinnati to a neighborhood that voting rights advocates say is far less accessible for those of low-income and the disabled.

“Our faith calls for us to give voice to the concerns of the poor, the oppressed, the overworked, and those victimized by systems of injustice,” said The AMOS Project board president Bishop Dwight Wilkins. “Our county and our state should not conspire together to move voting further away from the people. An agreement needs to be made that keeps early voting in a location that is accessible by all major bus lines to make sure that Hamilton County’s 40,000 people without cars have the ability to come downtown and cast their vote.”