Race, Party and Early Voting in Ohio

As one might expect, The Nation‘s Ari Berman has a very lucid explanation up today of the maneuvering over early voting in Ohio, a state where so far Republicans are more or less getting their way. As Ari explains, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted initially tried to restrict early voting hours just in Democratic counties, but then took the logical fallback position:

In response to the public outcry, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who intervened in favor of limiting early voting hours in Democratic counties, issued a statewide directive mandating uniform early voting hours in all eighty-eight Ohio counties. Husted kept early voting hours from 8 am to 5 pm on weekdays from October 2 to 19 and broadened hours from 8 am to 7 pm from October 22 to November 2. But he refused to expand early voting hours beyond 7 pm during the week, on weekends or three days prior to the election (which is being challenged in court by the Obama campaign)—when it is most convenient for many working Ohioans to vote. Rather than expanding early voting hours across the state, Husted limited them for everybody. Voter suppression for all!

But the “equal” cutbacks on night and weekend voting in the period just prior to the election will not, of course, have an equal effect:

Cutbacks to early voting disproportionately disenfranchise African-American voters in Ohio. African-Americans comprise 21 percent of the population in Franklin and Montgomery counties and 28 percent in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County but accounted for 31 percent, 52 percent and 56 percent of early voters in the respective counties in 2008. (Eighty-two percent of those who voted early in Franklin County in 2008 did so on nights or weekends.)

Now it’ll be harder for voters across Ohio, particularly in the most populous, heavily Democratic cities, to find a convenient time to vote before Election Day in order to avoid the long lines that plagued the state in 2004 and may have cost John Kerry the election. “In the hours and days now eliminated by legislative and Sec. of State restrictions, an estimated 197,000 Early In-Person votes were cast, constituting about 3.4% of all votes cast statewide in 2008,” according to a new report by Norman Robbins, research director for Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates. “This is very significant in Ohio where major elections have often been decided by a 2% margin of victory.”

As Ari tartly notes, all this latter-day concern that early voting opportunities will somehow increase the risk of “voter fraud” is a complete crock; GOP officials avidly supported “convenience voting” back when it was utilized more frequently by reliable Republican voters. The honest rationale was publicly offered in Ohio just yesterday:

Franklin County (Columbus) GOP Chair Doug Preisse gave a surprisingly blunt answer to the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.” Preisse is not some rogue operative but the chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio’s second-largest county and a close adviser to Ohio Governor John Kasich.

This “blunt answer” isn’t just a reflection of naked partisanship, though it is that. It also reflects the alarmingly common belief of today’s (like the day before yesterday’s) conservative pols that African-Americans, being the subjects of a corrupt Democratic political machine (or as Allen West likes to call it, a “plantation”), aren’t really exercising free agency when they vote, and thus really don’t deserve to have the right to vote (for those conservatives who even accept that concept) protected with any rigor.

Add into that rationalization the amazingly powerful right-wing backlash against any characterization of their tactics as bearing the aroma of racism–they’re principled color-blind ideologues!–and you can understand how the national GOP is brazenly embracing voter-suppresion tactics that used to be the prerogative of Dixiecrats.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.