Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a walking, keep on a talking
Marchin’ on to freedom’s land

[Early voting lines in Cleveland on Sunday]

It was a cold, damp, windy weekend in Cleveland, but thousands of early voters in assembled outside of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and refused to be deterred. Volunteers passed out pizza, hot dogs and hot chocolate as voters waited for two hours on Saturday and Sunday to exercise their most basic constitutional right. State Senator Nina Turner, a ubiquitous presence in the area, worked the line to keep spirits up. “Think about what our ancestors went through,” she told the predominantly African-American crowd. “This is nothing.”

It probably didn’t feel this way for those waiting in line, but voters in Ohio were lucky to have this opportunity. The Ohio GOP legislature and Secretary of State Jon Husted banned early voting three days before the election, only to be overturned in court as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign. In Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County—where Obama needs a big turnout to win the state—5,661 people voted early this weekend, compared to 6,457 in 2008. Turnout in Cuyahoga had surpassed 2008 levels until Hurricane Sandy hit and left many parts of the city without power. 

[UPDATE: 45,395 people voted early in person in Cuyahoga in 2012, compared to 54,340 in 2008, a decrease of 16 percent.  The combination of Sandy and early voting limits likely explains the decrease in turnout. Writes Norman Robbins of Northeast Voter Advocates: "This 'reduction' of about 9,000 early votes in 2012 compared to 2008 is totally expected on the basis of Sec. of State Husted's restrictions of early voting hours in 2012. In 2012, Sec. Husted cut away ALL 4 weekends of voting prior to the last weekend before election day that were available for in-person voting in 2008. In this time period in Cuyahoga County in 2008, 7,495 votes were cast. Sec.Husted also cut away about 3 weeks of extended business hour early voting (4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.) which in 2008 had garnered about 1,632 early in-person votes in Cuyahoga County. Adding these votes cast in hours prohibited by the Sec of State in 2012 gives 7495+1632=9127 votes cast during early in-person hours in 2008 that were eliminated by Sec Husted in 2012."]

Still, the Obama campaign feels good about its chances in Ohio based on the early voting turnout, noting that 537,000 in-person early votes have been cast in 2012, compared to 460,000 in 2008. As of Monday, Ohioans in counties Obama carried in 2008 have already cast 903,645 ballots, either through in-person early voting or absentee voting, compared with 482,384 votes cast from counties McCain carried. According to the latest NBC poll, “In Ohio, 35 percent say they have already voted or plan to do so, and Obama is leading them, 62 percent to 36 percent. Yet Romney is up among Election Day voters in the Buckeye State, 52 percent to 42 percent."

On Sunday morning, Pastor Larry Harris rallied his congregation in a “Souls to the Polls” service at Mount Zion Baptist Church, the oldest church in the Mount Pleasant area. “This is the last hurrah, the last hee-haw, to make sure we get out the vote,” Harris said. Following the service, twenty-eight people got on buses and went down to the board of elections to cast their ballots—an act multiplied across the Ohio area. The effort by Ohio Republicans to limit voting rights in the state has made traditionally disenfranchised communities even more determined to exercise that right. “When they went after big mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad,” said Reverend Tony Minor, Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. African-Americans comprise 28 percent of the population in Cuyahoga but made up 56 percent of early voters in 2008. Judging by the lines I saw in Cleveland, that number could be even higher in 2012.

The lines were long this weekend, but, unlike in Florida, things went relatively smoothly at the polls. But the real test will be on Election Day. Already, the Tea Party group True the Vote has requested that their “poll watchers” be let inside polling places in heavily African-American voting precincts in Columbus in order to challenge voters they believe are ineligible to cast a ballot. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has set up forty-six dedicated phone lines to handle Ohio-related voting complaints through its 1-866-Our-Vote hotline. In 2004, an estimated 174,000 Ohioans, roughly 3 percent of the state’s electorate, left the polls without voting because of long lines. Hopefully, as a result of early voting, that won’t happen again.

If Obama wins Ohio, it will be a case study in the value of grassroots organizing and expanded electoral participation. “Things looks look well,” Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who represents the Cleveland area, told me. “I’m one of those people who believes it’s not over until it’s over. But we will have done everything we know humanely possible to do, and if we do that, we will win.”

[Early voting lines in Cleveland on Saturday]

For more on the fight to preserve voting rights, check out Brentin Mock’s dispatch from Florida.