Go to the website Ohio Historical Election Results, and you will find a rich trove of data (http://ohioelectionresults.com). It was put together by Mike Dawson, a political consultant, former senior aide to Mike DeWine and once the voice of Gov. George Voinovich. The figure that caught my attention was 5,722,443.
That is the number of Ohioans who cast a vote in the 2004 presidential election. Remember, this was the election with the huge problems, voters waiting in lines for hours, worries about many losing patience and giving up without casting a ballot. The embarrassment triggered a slew of improvements, Democrats and Republicans joining in the effort, delivering such things as early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.
That figure, 5.722 million, ranks as the second highest vote count ever in the state, topped only by the 5.773 million who voted in the 2008 presidential race.
How did voters get it done — the polls open for just one day, no voting early on weekends or weekday evenings? Interest burned, the Iraq war turning into a calamity, Ohio Republicans adding to the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
Four years later, the country elected its first black president, interest, and expectations, surging higher. In 2012? Turnout declined to 5.632 million, President Obama below his count in 2008, Mitt Romney behind John McCain.
All of this shines light on the past week. Ohio and its elections returned to the front. On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered Jon Husted, the secretary of state, to restore early voting hours for the three days before Election Day. Two days earlier, the New York Times unleashed an editorial cudgeling Republicans for “making it harder” for Ohioans to vote.
The editorial cited Ohio as “one of the most egregious examples” of officials imposing “all sorts of barriers to the ballot box.”
No question, many Republicans at the Statehouse have followed the spirit of those words uttered by Doug Preisse, lobbyist and party operative. He told the Columbus Dispatch in 2012: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read, African-American — voter turnout machine.” They have turned minor errors into reasons for disqualifying ballots. They hold to the empty notion that the system is vulnerable to voter fraud.
Many fail to grasp, or, worse, respect, the long, historic fight blacks waged to gain the right to vote.
What set off the Times? The editorial pointed to the removal of the first week of early voting, shrinking the days from 35 to 28, thus eliminating the opportunity to register and vote on the same day. It cited the directive issued by Husted, ending early voting during evening hours, on Sundays and on the Monday before Election Day (the directive now set for revision following the ruling of the federal court).
Worth adding is that the 28 days still put Ohio among the more expansive for early voting. The secretary of state again will send an application for a no-excuse-necessary absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state. As a result, Ohioans can vote easily from home.
That compares favorably with, say, New York, where there is no early voting and an excuse is required to vote absentee. What about other presidential battleground states? Note that Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia all lack early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots.
For his part, Husted stepped up after lawmakers failed to set early voting hours. He based his directive on the thinking of a bipartisan group of local elections officials. That is how the legislature should work, the parties making trade-offs to reach a broad compromise. Many fret about the deepening polarization. And Husted gets belted for promoting a bipartisan plan?
If he knows how to cover his right flank, the secretary of state also has broken with many in his party, opposing, for instance, a photo identification requirement for voters. He has called for reluctant Republicans to adopt online voter registration — for its accuracy, efficiency and convenience.
His pursuit of uniform statewide voting rules isn’t an effort to erect barriers. Rather, he seeks protection against the fierce litigation likely to follow a close, high-stakes race. The American Civil Liberties Union has applauded the concept.
The key is whether uniformity is accompanied by making voting more accessible. The Times pointed to the 157,000 Ohioans who cast ballots in 2012 on the early-voting days Husted eliminated in his directive. Again, more Ohioans voted in the pre-early-voting era of 2004 than two years ago. Chances are, most of those 157,000 would get to the polls — if they had interest.
And what would they find? That voting still is much easier in Ohio, and that the “most egregious” behavior has occurred in the likes of North Carolina, where early voting has been shrunk to 10 days and a strict photo identification requirement has been imposed.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.