On Election Day 2004, long lines and widespread electoral dysfunction marred the results of the presidential election in Ohio, whose electoral votes ended up handing George W. Bush a second term. “The misallocation of voting machines led to unprecedented long lines that disenfranchised scores, if not hundreds of thousands, of predominantly minority and Democratic voters,” found a post-election report by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. According to one survey, 174,000 Ohioans, 3 percent of the electorate, left their polling place without voting because of the interminable wait. (Bush won the state by only 118,000 votes).
After 2004, Ohio reformed its electoral process by adding thirty-five days of early voting before Election Day, which led to a much smoother voting experience in 2008. The Obama campaign used this extra time to successfully mobilize its supporters, building a massive lead among early voters than John McCain could not overcome on Election Day.
In response to the 2008 election results, Ohio Republicans drastically curtailed the early voting period in 2012 from thirty-five to eleven days, with no voting on the Sunday before the election, when African-American churches historically rally their congregants to go to the polls. (Ohio was one of five states to cut back on early voting since 2010.) Voting rights activists subsequently gathered enough signatures to block the new voting restrictions and force a referendum on Election Day. In reaction, Ohio Republicans repealed their own bill in the state legislature, but kept a ban on early voting three days before Election Day (a period when 93,000 Ohioans voted in 2008), adding an exception for active duty members of the military, who tend to lean Republican. (The Obama campaign is now challenging the law in court, seeking to expand early voting for all Ohioans).
The Romney campaign has recently captured headlines with its absurd and untrue claim that the Obama campaign is trying to suppress the rights of military voters. The real story from Ohio is how cutbacks to early voting will disproportionately disenfranchise African-American voters in Ohio’s most populous counties. African-Americans, who supported Obama over McCain by 95 points in Ohio, comprise 28 percent of the population of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County but accounted for 56 percent of early voters in 2008, according to research done by Norman Robbins of the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates and Mark Salling of Cleveland State University. In Columbus’s Franklin County, African-Americans comprise 20 percent of the population but made up 34 percent of early voters.
Now, in heavily Democratic cities like Cleveland, Columbus, Akron and Toledo, early voting hours will be limited to 8 am until 5 pm on weekdays beginning on October 1, with no voting at night or during the weekend, when it’s most convenient for working people to vote. Republican election commissioners have blocked Democratic efforts to expand early voting hours in these counties, where the board of elections are split equally between Democratic and Republican members. Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has broken the tie by intervening on behalf of his fellow Republicans. (According to the Board of Elections, 48%* of early voters in Franklin County voted early on nights or weekends, which Republicans have curtailed. The number who voted on nights or weekends was nearly 50% in Cuyahoga County.)
"I cannot create unequal access from one county board to another, and I must also keep in mind resources available to each county,” Husted said in explaining his decision to deny expanded early voting hours in heavily Democratic counties. Yet in solidly Republican counties like Warren and Butler, GOP election commissioners have approved expanded early voting hours on nights and weekends. Noted the Cincinnati Enquirer: “The counties where Husted has joined other Republicans to deny expanded early voting strongly backed then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, while most of those where the extra hours will stand heavily supported GOP nominee John McCain.” Moreover, budget constraints have not stopped Republican legislators from passing costly voter ID laws across the map since 2010.
The cutbacks in early voting in Ohio are part of a broader push by Republicans to restrict the right to vote for millions of Americans, particularly those who voted for Obama. “The Republicans remember those long lines outside board of elections last time in the evenings and on weekends,” Tim Burke, Democratic Party chairman in Cincinnati’s Hamilton County, told the Enquirer. “The lines were overwhelmingly African-American, and it’s pretty obvious that the people were predominately—very predominately Obama voters. The Republicans don’t want that to happen again. It’s that simple.”
Ohio in 2012 is at risk of heading back to the dark days of 2004. “Voting—America’s most precious right and the foundation for all others—is a fragile civic exercise for many Ohioans,” the Enquirer wrote recently.
*August 23, 2012: This figure has been updated due to an error discovered and corrected in the source material.