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Published: Sunday, 8/12/2012

Husted may review early-hours voting rule

Added time in some counties draw Dems' concern

BY DARREL ROWLAND
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COLUMBUS -- Four years ago, more than 60 percent of the voters in Butler and Warren counties backed Republican John McCain.

This year both counties, the biggest two in Ohio to go for the GOP presidential candidate, are staying open extra hours on weekdays and Saturdays so their residents can cast early ballots.

In 2008, voters in Ohio's two largest counties, Cuyahoga and Franklin, went for Democrat Barack Obama by 60 percent or more.

But elections offices in those two predominantly Democratic counties will be open for early voting only during regular business hours on weekdays and not at all on Saturdays.

A similar Republican-Democrat disparity is occurring in several areas across the state as county elections boards decide whether to add hours during Ohio's early voting period, which begins Oct. 2.

"This is patently political," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "The Republicans know they can't win this election playing the right way."

"Jim Crow has been resurrected in Ohio," state Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland) said on MSNBC. She said most of Ohio's African-American voters live in urban counties that don't have extended hours.

The growing outcry from Democrats and black leaders is causing Secretary of State Jon Husted to reconsider whether he should impose a statewide standard on early voting hours.

"Given the controversy that has seemed to envelop this and the lack of facts out there, I will be forced to consider issuing a standard directive for hours of operation," he said.

Mr. Husted, a Republican, said he wanted the county boards -- under Ohio law, each made up of two Democrats and two Republicans -- to set their own hours because he believes in local control.

He told board members that if they couldn't agree, he would make their early voting hours the same as their regular business hours.

But the way it is playing out, GOP elections board members in many Republican counties are agreeing with their Democratic counterparts to extend hours, but GOP members in more-Democratic counties are not agreeing to add hours.

The latter scenarios create a 2-2 tie that Mr. Husted, per his pledge, is breaking by adhering to that county's regular office hours for early voting.

Ohio Republican Chairman Robert T. Bennett said the GOP is not engaging in a conspiracy to minimize voting in Democratic areas.

"I want everybody to vote that's entitled to vote," he said. "It's a failure of the Democrats. They don't want to make an agreement in the large counties. They've dug their heels in."

Timothy Burke, chairman of both Hamilton County's Democratic Party and its elections board, said the GOP is trying to undo changes that alleviated the long lines that denied many Ohioans the right to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

"Everybody recognizes that those were Democratic voters standing in line. They're not going to say that, but that's what's going on here," he said. "All of what's going on now is an attempt to suppress Democratic voters."

Mr. Redfern said if Mr. Husted won't grant additional voting hours, county commissioners -- mostly Democrats in urban areas -- can order additional voting hours on their own for the board of elections.

Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said his members' opinions vary on the issue of whether to extend hours.

Most in urban areas want more and most in rural areas don't, often because of the additional cost.

Among Ohio's major urban areas, only Montgomery County has extended hours this year.

Hamilton County board members will vote next week.

Mr. Obama carried the seven largest counties in 2008.



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