In battleground states such as Ohio, the bloc of voters who cast U.S. presidential ballots well before the first Tuesday in November can change the outcome of a close race.
Four years ago, about 30 percent of the 131 million votes cast nationwide were made before Election Day by absentee ballot or in early voting centers like the one in Toledo that year at 2127 Jefferson Ave.
It was near several African-American neighborhoods in the central city.
With its electoral votes up for grabs, Ohio's recent controversy about when people can cast early ballots has caught the nation's attention.
The epicenter of the debate was in Butler and Warren counties in the southwest part of the state, where voters in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Cincinnati were going to be allowed to vote for president beginning in October during evenings or on weekends. But in the Democratic stronghold of Cincinnati, the Republicans on the county board of elections cut off early voting hours at 5 p.m., with no weekend hours available.
The disparity was quashed Wednesday by Secretary of State Jon Husted when he put all 88 Ohio counties on the same early voting schedule.
The Republican secretary of state had been breaking 2-2 ties by boards of elections in several urban counties, including Lucas, in favor of restricting in-person early voting initially to normal weekday business hours. Now, 21 other counties that had reached agreements on expanded weekday and weekend hours will fall into line with Mr. Husted's order.
Local Democrats including state Sen. Edna Brown of Toledo and state Rep. Matt Szollosi of Oregon said Thursday that the order was better than what was happening, but that the hours still were not sufficient.
In Lucas County, the election board officials were split on the hours, with the Democrats wanting evenings and weekends and the Republicans wanting working hours only. Although that debate is over, the Democrats and Republicans running the Lucas County Board of Elections still are deadlocked on selecting a location -- something that could again fall to Mr. Husted if they do not reach a consensus.
In Toledo in 2008, leading up to President Obama's election and John McCain's defeat, more than 24,000 ballots were cast at the Jefferson Avenue early vote location, which is the Lucas County-owned EMS Training Center. More people voted there that year than at all the other locations combined.
Two years later, the November, 2010, general election attracted 5,559 people to 1302 Washington St. -- another near-downtown location close to the heart of several predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Then for the 2011 municipal general election, 5,808 people used that same early voting center.
The cost for taxpayers to staff the early vote locations for the general or presidential elections was $50,866 in 2008; $21,451 in 2010, and $19,604 in 2011. The county paid additional "miscellaneous" expenses for each early vote center, but had to pay rent only once -- $12,000 for both the Sept. 15, 2009, primary and the Nov. 3, 2009, general election.
The early voting center must be open for business Oct. 2. Democrats on the county board of elections -- Ron Rothenbuhler and Keila Cosme -- want something near central Toledo and downtown with free parking. The Republicans on the election board -- Jon Stainbrook and Tony DeGidio -- have suggested downtown Toledo as well and also two sites farther away in more affluent areas.
The sites suggested by the Democrats are:
- The former Xerox Building, 801 Washington St.
- The Toledo Business Technology Center, 1946 N. 13th St.
- EMS Training Center, 2127 Jefferson Ave.
The sites suggested by the Republicans are:
- Lucas County Recreation Center, 2901 Key St., Maumee.
- The former Toledo Police station at 2328 W. Sylvania Ave.
One Government Center
Mr. Stainbrook argued that the "rec room" in the county-owned recreation center provides ample space for voting operations and adequate free parking, while saving taxpayer money because the county would not have to pay rent or buy insurance.
Representatives from Mr. Husted's office, along with election board employees, spent part of Thursday in a van touring the buildings.
Mr. Stainbrook said his proposals would not restrict access to the ballot because all registered voters in Ohio would receive applications for mail-in absentee ballots, as ordered by Mr. Husted.
State Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said the Democratic-backed locations are more convenient to voters who might want to vote early to avoid possible Election Day conflicts such as work, foul weather, long lines, or malfunctioning polling equipment.
He blasted Mr. Husted for initially siding with other Republicans across the state to set early voting center times to working hours only, and he also hammered Mr. Stainbrook for his suggested locations.
"We fully anticipated the Republican secretary of state would want to limit voting opportunities for Democrats," Mr. Redfern said. "And in Lucas County, I am surprised Jon Stainbrook isn't advocating for it be out on the Ohio Turnpike location in Maumee because he wants to make this as difficult as possible for people without transportation and people who have a 9-to-5 job. … I know what Jon Stainbrook is trying to do: He is trying to suppress the vote."
Mr. Stainbrook called Mr. Redfern's comments malarkey.
"There is no reason for extended and weekend hours because people can vote from home. We are saving the taxpayers of Lucas County a lot of money by doing it this way," Mr. Stainbrook said before Mr. Husted's Wednesday directive. "My dad is 81 and in a wheelchair, and he doesn't get to a voting center ... Redfern is just political grandstanding and we are saving the taxpayers all this money."
Each voter will receive an absentee ballot request, and if he or she fills that out and turns it in, he or she can vote without leaving home.
The state will spend about $3 million for that mailing to Ohio's 7.77 million registered voters, then voters have to pay the postage to send the ballot back to the state, said Matt McClellan, spokesman for Mr. Husted.
Pete Gerken, president of the Lucas County board of commissioners, urged the Lucas County Board of Elections in June to investigate prepaying the postage for absentee voter ballots in the Nov. 6 presidential election. The cost would be as much as $165,000, if Mr. Husted's prediction of a large volume of absentee voter ballots by mail holds up.
"I am still urging for that," he said. "It will cost $1.38 for voters to mail it back, and I call that an impediment to access that process."
Like other Democrats, Mr. Gerken wants a convenient location for voters.
Mr. Stainbrook said he is willing to compromise on the location.
"I could have suggested Sylvania," he said. "The rec center is perfect. It is in the middle. Maumee is a compromise. If I was trying to disenfranchise people, I would have voted to put it in Sylvania."
Mr. Rothenbuhler said the elections board should be making it as easy as possible for everyone to vote.
"We are fortunate to have cars and the ability to vote when we want, but there are a lot of people in the central city area who may not have that vehicle or they do not have easy access to something that is farther away from the downtown area, and the buses make a loop that takes hours," he said.
"Even at the [former] Toledo police station, there is not a bus that goes there every 15 minutes."
Dan Kobil, a law professor at Capital University in Columbus, said Mr. Husted's decision Wednesday was based more in politics then legality.
"In terms of equality, it seems only fair that every county have equal access for voting," Mr. Kobil said. "The way it was set up before was blatantly partisan."
Regarding the location, he said fairness would be satisfied by having two locations -- one in a Democratic area and the other in a Republican area.
"It is troubling if they are going to say, 'We are going to make it as convenient as we can for our side and as inconvenient as we can for their side,' " Mr. Kobil said. "The location can be used to disenfranchise minority voters."
Also this week, the Obama campaign asked the U.S. District Court in Columbus to restore full early voting rights to all registered voters in the state.
The state's Republican-led General Assembly voted to cut off early balloting the Friday before Election Day, except for members of the military.
The Obama re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Ohio Democratic Party sued to reinstate early in-person voting throughout the weekend and on the Monday before Election Day.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.