Elections are about candidates and issues, fundraising and organization. Close elections, especially presidential elections in battleground states such as Ohio, are also about obscure-sounding voting issues, the laws and rules that affect how citizens gain access to the ballot.
This year in Ohio, the fight is over early voting.
Not all states have early voting. In Ohio, early voting came into being after the 2004 presidential election, when long lines at the polls disenfranchised many minority Democrats, mostly in big cities.
Since there is no way to count discouraged voters, there is no way to know whether a more open system would have cost George W. Bush a second term.
What is certain is that Bush won the state by about 118,000 votes; that more than 500,000 Ohioans voted early in 2008, when Barack Obama won; and that party operatives and academics agree that early voters tend to be Democrats.
The first flashpoint was a federal lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign, joined by the state and national Democratic parties. They sued over a law passed by the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly that cut off the last three days of early voting before Election Day. Democrats argued that since the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act allowed some citizens to vote an absentee ballot in person right up until Election Day, all citizens should be allowed to do so.
The Romney campaign countered that Obama really wanted to suppress the rights of military voters, a ridiculous charge given Democrats’ concerns about making sure their voters had smooth sailing on the weekend before Election Day, a convenience for poor and working-class voters, especially minority voters in big cities.
While that lawsuit went forward, Jon Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state and, by law, the fifth member of every board of elections in the state, faced a uniformity issue of his own. Husted, a Republican, fears discrepancies because he knows they invite lawsuits, lawsuits that could put Ohio in an unwelcome spotlight and, possibly, decide the outcome of the presidential election, as happened in Florida in 2000.
In some Republican-leaning counties, Democrats and Republicans agreed to expand early voting hours to include nights and weekends, but, when boards deadlocked in Democratic-leaning counties, Husted broke the ties in favor of weekday voting during regular business hours. Democrats went ballistic, so Husted issued a directive that ironed out the discrepancies by slighly expanding early voting on weekdays, but with no early voting on the weekends.
In Dayton, the two Democrats on the Montgomery County Board of Elections then tried to reinstate early voting on weekends. Husted broke a tie vote (siding with Republicans on the board) in line with his directive, then started the process to remove the two Democrats. In Mahoning County, Democratic commissioners this week set weekend hours for the building that houses the board of elections, hoping to encourage a similar challenge.
When Doug Preisse, Franklin County Republican Party chairman and member of the board of elections, told the Columbus Dispatch for a Sunday story he felt “we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accomodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine,” Democrats went crazy.
The not-so-veiled reference to mobilization efforts at black churches set off overblown charges of racism. Republicans don’t care that the voters affected are mostly African-American, they care because they vote for Democrats.
Early voting will still start on Oct. 2, more than a month (35 days) before Election Day. Ohio has, so far, backed off from a photo ID requirement to vote, an unnecessary measure given very low incidences of fraud and the fact that voters must first register.
But, besides inviting lawsuits and doubts about the fairness of the elec tion system, the Republican rollback of early voting in Ohio is reason enough for Democrats, when they next seize control of the secretary of state’s office and the legislature, to expand access, in the name of uniformity, of course.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.