OHIO'S Restrictions Take Direct Aim At African-Americans

Until 2012, the arc of our history has bent toward expanding voting rights.

A franchise originally limited to white male property owners was slowly extended to women and citizens of every race. In my lifetime, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, and Congress acted in 1965 to end "Jim Crow" burdens, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

In the past decade, bipartisan efforts in Ohio made it easier to vote, including "no-fault" absentee and early in-person voting on evenings and weekends that led to record turnouts in 2008.

But some folks didn't like the results of all that early voting.

HEAVY EARLY TURNOUT

Why? Look no further than Hamilton County in 2008. With more than 429,000 votes cast, and a 71% turnout that dwarfed recent presidential elections, Barack Obama won what has traditionally been a GOP stronghold with 53% of the vote.

Underneath those totals, however, was something more striking: More than 107,000 votes were cast "early," either by mail or in person at the Board of Elections, almost 25% of the total turnout. And more than 57% of "early voters" cast ballots for Obama, accounting for a large chunk of his Hamilton County margin.

These numbers did not go unnoticed.

After the Republicans took control of the Ohio House, and won the governor's and secretary of state's offices in 2010, the GOP tried to change early voting procedures.

New laws, murky "directives" from Secretary of State Jon Husted, confounding provisional ballot rules, and change after change in county precinct boundaries and voting locations have turned what should be a simple civic duty into a confusing exercise for many.

These changes seem to have been designed to reduce the number of voters by making it harder rather than easier to vote. Some call it voter suppression and it is aimed directly at Ohi'™s African-American residents.

A group called Fair Elections Ohio (I am the treasurer) put a halt to some of these efforts by collecting more than 300,000 signatures to force a referendum on HB 194, which would have dramatically shortened the number of early voting days in Ohio. Then, surprise. Once HB 194 was placed on the 2012 ballot, the GOP-controlled General Assembly repealed it, not wanting one more incentive for voters to turn out in November.

Taking Another Tack

But the repeal of HB 194 did not stop efforts to reduce Ohio voting this year. The new focus was on restricting early, in-person voting at local elections boards. In-person voting is an alternative to voting by mail, which can be confusing and inconvenient for some, and can result in a lost vote if the paperwork is not handled properly.

In 2008, more than 26,000 people voted early at the Hamilton County Board of Elections (824 Broadway, downtown). Those who saw those long lines on the Saturday before the presidential election know that thousands of African-Americans were among the early voters. Nationwide, more than 50% of African-Americans who voted in 2008 did so early.

Early in-person voting gives voters with health issues or other obligations a chance to vote if they can't get to their precinct on Election Day.

The early votes cast in 2008 reduced congestion in polling places on Election Day. Indeed, based on the growing early voting phenomenon, the board has reduced the number of Hamilton County precincts on Election Day from 880 to 335, saving substantial costs.

COURT WILL DECIDE

Although those long lines of early voters moved many of us, some folks were moved to make sure it didn't happen again. A separate law passed by the GOP-controlled assembly eliminated early in-person voting for everyone except military families on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day. But the three-day restriction is now tied up in court after a federal judge in Columbus ruled it violated rights of non-military voters. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine appealed the finding.

Since 2000, the Hamilton County Board of Elections has set generous extended hours to make it easier to vote. In 2000, when Ohio voted for George W. Bush, the board welcomed early voters beginning Oct. 16, with the office open until 8 p.m. on weekdays and noon on Saturdays. In 2010, when John Kasich was elected governor, the board had similar hours, and added hours on two Sundays in October. In 2008, 8,836 votes were cast during extended hours.

Reducing hours for early in-person voting is a bald effort to roll back rights that is aimed squarely at African-American, in the hope that those early voters will stay home this year.

Will it work? Not if voters take up the challenge to make sure their votes are counted, no matter the obstacles.