(Special to The Root) — On Oct. 1, citizens across the state of Ohio pitched tents and camped outside their polling places to be first in line for early voting. It may have sounded a bit drastic — after all, there was still a month to go before Election Day. But early voting has been a hard-fought issue in the battleground state this year, and the statewide campouts, led by members of the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus, were designed to raise awareness of both the opportunities and challenges.
Ohio is one of 32 states, along with Washington, D.C., that allows voters to mark their selections early, either in person or by absentee ballot. With the convenience of casting ballots around their schedules, well in advance of long lines on Election Day, early voting has become an increasingly popular choice. In the 2008 presidential election, a record 30 percent of votes were cast early — and a significant percentage of those early voters were African Americans.
In Florida, for example, 33 percent of citizens who voted on the last Sunday before Election Day alone were African American. The staggering hike in participation occured largely on the strength of Florida's successful "Souls to the Polls" campaign, in which black churches encouraged their congregations to vote by taking members directly from services to the polls on that particular early-voting Sunday. In Ohio's Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, black voters accounted for 26 percent of voters overall in 2008, but 56 percent of early voters (pdf). Many of Ohio's early voters hit the polls on nights or weekends.
After the record turnouts of the 2008 election, however, five states passed laws that reduced early-voting periods. In Florida, a state that President Obama won that year, the Republican-controlled legislature reduced early voting from 14 days to eight, handily taking out the popular Sunday before Election Day. In Ohio, which Obama also won, the state legislature subsequently eliminated the last three days of early voting — three days on which 100,000 Ohioans voted in 2008.
Despite two federal court rulings to uphold Ohio's last three days of early voting, in his determination to restrict access to the ballot, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted severely limited the poll hours on those last three days. During this three-day period, Ohioans will now have only 16 hours total to cast ballots. What's more, Husted had already chipped away at early voting by curtailing evening hours during the rest of the early voting period, and eliminating weekend voting altogether — a challenge particularly for low-income voters who can't take time off from work.
Politicians have no legitimate arguments for cutting early voting days and hours. This is about manipulating election laws for partisan gain. Some conservatives have even come clean. Doug Preisse, chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio's second-largest county, admitted that cutting early voting will make it harder for African Americans to access the ballot, and said that the state should not "accommodate" black voter turnout. Last summer the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, stated that the party held meetings about strategies for "keeping blacks from voting."
In spite of such efforts to limit black voters' access to the polls, opportunities to vote early are already in effect in many states and will soon be available in others. You can see a full calendar of early voting for each of the 32 states that offer it at earlyvoting.net, and find out if you can take advantage of casting a ballot sooner than Nov. 6. Votes cast early don't count more than those cast on Election Day, but people who vote early have the comfort of knowing their civic duty has been completed. And despite partisan attempts to silence certain communities, every voter's voice deserves to be heard in this election.
Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization. She is also a prominent civil rights litigator and racial justice advocate in the areas of voting, education, housing and immigrants' rights.
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