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Published: Sunday, 8/26/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Expand, don't discourage, in-person early voting

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Four years ago, almost one-third of Ohioans who voted in the presidential election -- more than 1.7 million voters -- cast their ballots before Election Day. This year, early and absentee voting may account for as much as half of Ohio's total vote, according to some projections.

As we've heard repeatedly, our state could elect the next president. That's why the dispute over this year's schedule for voting early, in person, is so important and so rancorous -- and why the state ought to make such voting as accessible as it reasonably can, rather than cut back.

The vast majority of Ohioans who vote early use mailed absentee ballots. But a large number of early voters -- in the 2010 general election, it was more than one out of six -- go to polling places run by county boards of election.

During the five weeks of early voting in 2008, Ohioans could vote in person at night and on weekends. In several urban counties, including Lucas County, early voting extended through the weekend before Election Day.

This year, though, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has ordered that when early-voting centers across the state open Oct. 2, they will not operate on weekends. He initially suspended two Democratic election-board members in Montgomery County, which includes Dayton, after they defied his directive and supported weekend hours.

Early-voting centers generally will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the first three weeks, and until 7 p.m. in the last two weeks. Only military personnel and their families would be able to vote in person on the three days before Election Day, if centers are open then. President Obama's re-election campaign is suing in federal court to restore in-person early voting for everyone on those days.

Mr. Husted and other Republicans cite the fairness of uniform hours for early voting across Ohio. They say that this year, the state is making it easier than ever before to vote by absentee ballot.

But voting-rights advocates and Democrats contend that Mr. Husted is limiting early voting in a way that favors his party. Nonpartisan research suggests that the new restrictions on in-person voting will affect some Ohio voters more then others.

A study last year by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron found that women, older and lower-income voters, people without college degrees, and voters in the urban counties that include Columbus and Cleveland are especially likely to vote early. (The report did not distinguish those who vote by absentee ballot from those who vote early in person.) Opponents of the new early-voting rules say these people are more likely to vote Democratic.

Strong Democrats also tend to vote early, the study said: In 2010, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland took nearly 53 percent of the early vote for governor. But his Republican challenger, John Kasich, won the vote on Election Day -- and, barely, the election.

The Bliss Institute report concluded that race and ethnicity don't seem to have much to do with early voting. But other analyses have found regional effects: A study by Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates calculated that in 2008, 42 percent of in-person early voters in Hamilton County (which includes Cincinnati) were black, although African-Americans accounted for just 24 percent of the county's adult population.

This year as in 2008, the advocacy group estimates that given the opportunity, some 100,000 Ohioans would vote in person on the weekend before Election Day. A disproportionate number of them are black voters, the group asserts.

The chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party may have given the game away. Doug Preisse told the Columbus Dispatch that "we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter turnout machine."

Mr. Preisse later said the Dispatch "misconstrued and in some cases misquoted entirely" his remarks. The executive director of the Ohio Republican Party told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Mr. Preisse thought his comments were off the record, as if that would have made them less offensive.

Finally, Mr. Preisse allowed that "if my comments … have caused anyone discomfort, I regret that." If?

Secretary Husted deserves credit for resisting the more egregious vote-suppression schemes of Ohio Republican lawmakers, such as a failed proposal to require all voters to produce photo identification at the polls, in response to voter-impersonation fraud that no one has shown exists.

Mr. Husted notes that even under the new early-voting rules, Ohioans will have ample opportunity to vote before Election Day. For the first time this year, all registered voters in the state will get absentee-ballot applications. He observes that states such as Michigan don't permit early voting at all.

The secretary finally, if belatedly, extricated himself from a scheme in which Republican election-board members in GOP-dominated counties had sought to extend hours for in-person early voting, while their counterparts in Democratic counties balked. It would be equally proper, in the name of statewide standards, for Mr. Husted to decree early-voting hours in every county on at least some weekends. (Counties also should be permitted to run more than one early-voting center, although that's a restriction in state law rather than policy.)

If cost or inconvenience to local election boards of expanded early voting is a valid concern rather than merely an excuse, the state could help with that. It's a better alternative than the threat of returning to the long Election Day lines at polling places that confronted many Ohio voters before early voting took root.

Voting is a basic duty of every citizen. No one else can exercise your franchise for you, but there's no reason for government to make it harder for you to do so legally.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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