County GOP Chair in Ohio Admits Cuts in Poll Hours Are Racially Motivated
A county GOP Chair has come out with some blunt remarks on the motivation behind cutting poll hours on the weekends.
One of Deidre Reese’s most precious childhood memories is going to the polls with her family.
“It was a hard-fought-for right,” she says. “There was a time that we certainly could not do that.”
That’s one reason why Reese and many other African-American leaders across Ohio remain at the forefront of an uphill struggle to restore early in-person voting hours on weekends and later on weekday evenings. They plan to march to Monday’s special meeting of the Franklin County Board of Elections and ask for the additional hours.
Many probably thought this battle ended last week when Secretary of State Jon Husted, after encountering harsh criticism from sources as varied asThe New York Times and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, directed Ohio’s 88 county elections boards to keep uniform hours for early in-person voting. He ordered the boards to stay open to 7 p.m. the final two weeks before the election but nixed weekend hours.
Reese, coordinator of the Ohio Unity Coalition, a voter-advocacy group, said she appreciates Husted’s even-handedness in fixing a situation in which most GOP-dominated counties could add extra hours for early voting but Democratic areas could not.
However, Husted’s decree does not accommodate the schedules of many working people, she and other black leaders say. And while they applaud his move to mail absentee-ballot applications to all eligible Ohio voters, African-Americans are more comfortable echoing the civil-rights-movement mantra of “voting with their feet,” as Franklin County Elections Director William Anthony put it.
Husted said he based his decision to bar weekend hours after consulting with local elections officials, many of whom were concerned about cost. But Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, told The Dispatch that “we would make that work” if directed to stay open until, say, noon the Saturday before the election.
Of course, such decisions are at least as much about politics as policy.
“You would almost have to be as blind as a bat not to see the politics,” said Anthony, former chairman of the county Democratic Party. “Listen, call it what it really is.”
“What it really is” to many Republicans is simply an attempt to help President Barack Obama win re-election.
“I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine,” said Doug Preisse, chairman of the county Republican Party and elections board member who voted against weekend hours, in an email toThe Dispatch. “Let’s be fair and reasonable.”
He called claims of unfairness by Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern and others “bullshit. Quote me!”
For his part, Redfern called Husted’s actions “borderline criminal” in moving to oust the two Democrats on the Montgomery County Board of Elections for attempting on Friday to defy the secretary of state’s directive and open up on weekends for voting.
A hearing is set for Monday in Columbus on whether the two Democrats will be booted from the board.
Ohio Republican Chairman Robert T. Bennett said the Montgomery County dispute shows “the Democrats are being exposed for what they’re really for — confusion, chaos, and separate standards."
At the same time, Ohioans are waiting on a ruling in a federal lawsuit by Democrats, including the Obama campaign, seeking to restore early in-person voting on the three days before Election Day, a period in which nearly 100,000 Ohioans voted in 2008. The Republican-controlled legislature decreed that only active military personnel or their families could cast in-person votes that final Saturday-Monday.
Ockerman said elections officials strongly oppose bringing back voting on the Sunday or Monday before Election Day. He noted that the line to vote in Franklin County didn’t end until Monday evening, making it difficult to get accurate poll books showing who already has voted out to hundreds of polling locations by 5:30 the next morning. (Voters can cast a ballot if they are in line when the polls close.)
Still, one argument to restore early voting hours in Ohio keeps reoccurring: They worked in 2008, so what’s the rationale for removing them?
“As a result of historical discrimination against African-American voters, in addition to the recent wave of suppressive voter laws being enacted in statehouses across the country, African-American voters are skeptical of any laws aimed at limiting the opportunity to vote,” said NAACP Ohio Conference President Sybil Edwards McNabb. She and other black leaders have asked to meet with Husted.
A study by Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates says that even after Husted’s directive last week, the hours when more than 200,000 Ohioans voted in 2008 have been wiped out. The group and others such as the League of Women Voters are calling on Husted to restore voting on at least two weekends in late October.
In Florida, a judge already has halted a plan to take away voting hours in counties with heavy African-American concentrations.
The continuing pressure to add in-person voting hours is a bit of a mystery to those in the secretary of state’s office, who point to Husted’s historic initiative to enable all Ohioans to cast an absentee ballot through the mail. Adjoining states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Kentucky don’t have any early voting, they point out. Any Ohio voters reluctant to put their completed absentee ballots in the mail can personally drop them off at a county elections board or voting center.
“Your kitchen table is your polling place,” said Husted spokesman Maggie Ostrowski.
But from a political and perhaps cultural standpoint, not all absentee ballots are created equal. Republicans are much more likely to mail their absentee ballots, while Democrats (and African-Americans) prefer to cast their absentee ballots in person.
Thus, when Husted expands absentee balloting by mail but shrinks the opportunity for in-person balloting, most Republican party leaders are happy but many Democrats howl.
A study by the Franklin County Board of Elections shows that 48 percent of early, in-person votes in 2008 were cast after hours on weekdays, on weekends or on the Monday before the election — almost none of which is available to 2012 voters.
And those late ballots came predominantly from blacks and Democrats, the research shows. In all, 8 percent of whites cast early in-person ballots, while 13.3 percent of blacks did, said the study, which used census data to estimate the racial breakdown of voters.
In-person voting was popular even though Franklin County was one of the few in Ohio to mail absentee ballot applications to all voters in 2008.
Reese remembered how some Columbus churches bused members to Veterans Memorial, the county’s early-voting location, four years ago in a program called Souls to the Polls.
“You saw hundreds and hundreds of people going from different congregations to vote together as a community,” she said. “Many people want to actually show up at the polls; they want to be there with their friends and neighbors ...
“We have a system that works. We’re just kind of turning the clock back.”
Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this story.