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Changes to early voting rules could hurt Dems

AUGUST 29, 2011

Changes to early voting rules could hurt Dems
Analysis: Dems more likely than Republicans to vote early.

The following article, written by Ken McCall, appeared Sunday, August 21, 2011 in the Dayton Daily News. ABLE attorney Ellis Jacobs is quoted in the story. Read below, or view on DDN's website.

A Republican-sponsored state law designed to curb voter fraud by significantly limiting the number of days to vote early has a greater potential to hurt Democrats than Republicans, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of voter patterns from the 2008 presidential election.

The Daily News examined precinct-level voting results in five counties and found that Democratic voters were much more likely than Republicans to come to boards of elections offices and vote early in the 2008 presidential election, especially in urban counties.

AUGUST 29, 2011

Changes to early voting rules could hurt Dems
Analysis: Dems more likely than Republicans to vote early.

The following article, written by Ken McCall, appeared Sunday, August 21, 2011 in the Dayton Daily News. ABLE attorney Ellis Jacobs is quoted in the story. Read below, or view on DDN's website.

A Republican-sponsored state law designed to curb voter fraud by significantly limiting the number of days to vote early has a greater potential to hurt Democrats than Republicans, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of voter patterns from the 2008 presidential election.

The Daily News examined precinct-level voting results in five counties and found that Democratic voters were much more likely than Republicans to come to boards of elections offices and vote early in the 2008 presidential election, especially in urban counties.

The analysis of voting in the 2,830 precincts in Montgomery, Franklin and Hamilton counties found that precincts won by Democrat Barack Obama had significantly more early votes than those that went for his Republican challenger, John McCain.

And the more a precinct went for Obama, the more early, in-office votes were cast.

House Bill 194, now known as the Elections Reform Bill, contains more than 180 changes to election law, including provisions cutting early, in-office voting by about two-thirds — from 35 days to the equivalent of 11.

An organization backed by former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has filed petitions to overturn the law. The organization cleared the first hurdles on Thursday when Secretary of State Jon Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine certified the initial qualifying signatures and the wording of the referendum, which would appear on the November 2012 general election ballot.

Elections experts and observers say the new law will push more voting back to Election Day, and could subject many voters to the long lines that urban polling places saw in the 2004 presidential election.

That's especially true in large, urban counties, such as Montgomery County, which has cut precincts and polling places to save money.

"In my humble opinion, this law will be pushing people back to Election Day," said Steve Harsman, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. "That is a great concern to us because of all the decisions we made over the last four or five years."

In the Daily News examination, just over half of the precincts in Montgomery, Hamilton and Franklin counties went for Obama, but those 1,423 precincts accounted for more than three-quarters of all the votes cast in boards of elections offices before Election Day.

The correlation was striking (close to 90 percent) in all three urban counties, but weaker in Greene and Warren counties, which are more rural and suburban, and have many fewer Democratic voters. In Warren County, for example, none of the precincts went for Obama.

But a look at the most partisan precincts in Montgomery County illustrate the trends at work in urban counties, where significant numbers of voters turned out to cast their ballots early.

In the top 10 Obama precincts — all from Dayton and all voting 98 percent for the Democrat — early, in-office votes made up almost 29 percent of all votes cast. In the top 10 precincts for McCain — all in rural or suburban areas of the county — only 2.4 percent of the ballots were cast at the board of elections before Election Day.

New early voting rules

House Bill 194 prohibits county boards of elections from opening for in-office voting until 17 days before the election, instead of the current 35 days. But it also prohibits voting on Sundays, allows only half days on Saturdays, and stops all early voting at 6:00 p.m. on the Friday before the election. That would equal 10 full days and two half days of early voting in the 2012 presidential election.

Absentee mail-in voting, which is more popular among Republican voters, will be limited to 21 days before the election. The bill also prohibits boards of elections from mailing out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Republican defenders of the bill say the provisions were needed because the 35-day early voting period was too long and undermined public confidence in the elections because of the threat of voter fraud. They say the reforms were needed to ensure that all 88 counties conduct their elections in the same way.

Part of the problem that needed to be addressed, said Rep. Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati, co-sponsor of the elections reform bill, was the so-called "Golden Week," when deadlines to register to vote and cast early ballots overlapped. That allowed people to register and vote on the same day and did not allow the boards of elections to verify the voter's address.

"We reduced it because the elections officials, if you look at the testimony, virtually everyone said that time period was too long, including the Democrats," said Blessing, the No. 2 Republican leader in the Ohio House.

The bill, however, passed the House 54-40 with no Democratic votes.

Blessing said voters can still vote in person 17 days before the election and can get absentee ballots 21 days before.

"I don't think it creates any problems whatsoever," Blessing said. "Anybody that wants to vote can vote. It's just amazing to me that anybody would say this suppresses the vote."

But that's exactly what critics, such as voting rights advocate Ellis Jacobs, are saying.

Jacobs, a Dayton-based attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said the new law, if not overturned, would cause "a significant reduction" in access to early voting.

For the past 50 years, Jacobs said, the nation and state have been working to expand opportunities to vote. "And now, all of the sudden, without any good reason, we're headed in the other, wrong direction," he said. "And the impact of this is particularly strong on lower-income people, African-Americans, students and seniors."

Dan Tokaji, an elections law specialist and professor of law at The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, said the newspaper's analysis proves what many people suspected about voting patterns in 2008.

"This provides statistical confirmation of what most observers thought to be the case, which is that a very large percentage of early voters in 2008 were Democrats and very likely Obama supporters," Tokaji said.

The big unanswered question, he said, is how many of those people who voted early in the boards of elections would have voted anyway if their options were cut back. Tokaji said he suspects political scientists will find a link between early voting opportunities and increased voter turnout.

"But even if we can't, it seems to me that we as a society should do everything we can to make voting easier," Tokaji said. There's no question that early voting makes voting more convenient and takes pressure off the polls on Election Day.

"We shouldn't be making voting less convenient at a time when we're struggling just to get citizens to come out to vote at all."

‘Fraud is fraud'

Critics say the changes, which will take effect Sept. 30 if the voter challenge is unsuccessful, will inordinately affect the poor and minorities while attempting to fix a voter fraud problem that doesn't exist. In the process, they say, it will make elections more difficult for voters in large urban counties.

"It's politics pure and simple," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "It is a coordinated attack on the voting rights of Democrats, primarily the poor, the blue-collar families and those who are newer to the process, such as young voters and newly registered voters."

Peg Rosenfeld, elections specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, called the Election Reform Bill a "misnomer."

"The League never talks about people's motivations, but the effect of it will be to depress the vote," said Rosenfeld, who lobbies for the organization in the Statehouse.

Ohio has virtually no voter fraud, Rosenfeld said. There are occasional reports of voter registration fraud, in which people who are being paid to register voters turn in false names, like Mickey Mouse.

"But Mickey Mouse doesn't show up to vote," Rosenfeld said. "The only kind of voter fraud that we hear about at all, and it's very rare, is double voting. But that's usually little old ladies — and I am a little old lady — who forgot that they voted absentee and they show up at the polls."

But Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted defended the changes and said that even if fraud is rare — he could cite only two cases in recent Ohio elections — it cannot be tolerated.

"Fraud is fraud," Husted said. "When you have it, it undermines confidence in the election. And still, 21 days is ample time to vote."

Husted said it was also important to establish rules more closely controlling elections in all of Ohio's 88 counties.

For that reason, he said, one of the provisions of the new law prohibits boards of elections from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they ask for one. Large counties, such as Montgomery County, sent out applications to everyone in an attempt to take pressure off polling places on Election Day. But many smaller counties did not want to bear the cost of printing and mailing out all those applications.

Similarly, smaller counties often did not have early voting offered for the entire 35 days.

"What I'm for, and what the Legislature did, was to make it the same in every county in terms of the rules for casting and counting ballots," Husted said. "Because that's the most important issue — making sure we're treating people equally in all counties."

After the 2008 election, the Montgomery County Board of Elections cut its number of polling places and precincts by more than one-third in a cost-saving measure because so many people were voting early, either in the office or by absentee ballot. Now, Harsman said his office is going to have to revisit that and possibly expand voting places again, which would come out of taxpayers pockets.

"It could cost us a lot of money," he said. "But if fewer people participate in absentee and in-person voting in 2012 and we don't make changes, we're going to have extremely long lines."

Harsman said that because the big urban counties serve so many more people, they need more flexibility to run elections. In Cuyahoga County, for example, 665,352 people cast votes in the 2008 presidential race, the most of any county. Franklin County came in second with 560,325 and Montgomery came in fourth with 278,511.

Meanwhile, Vinton County had less than 1 percent of Cuyahoga's total, with only 5,646 people voting for president. Noble, Morgan and Monroe counties all had fewer than 7,000 presidential votes.

"Without flexibility by individual boards to manage in-person absentee voting and the hours, and to promote mail and absentee ballots, there could be very serious problems in many counties," Harsman said.

Husted, however, bristled at the suggestion that counties should be held to different standards depending on their size.

"We're not in the business of running elections for the convenience of local boards of elections," he said. "We're interested in running elections for the fairness of the election on behalf of the voters.

"Why should somebody in Montgomery County vote on a Saturday or a Sunday, or have the government pay for mailing them a ballot, when they wouldn't be able to do that in another county?"

Husted also argued that the correlation between Obama voting and early voting was an "apples and oranges comparison" because the in-person elections sites were all in urban areas.

"I think you could argue that (in-office voting) is a benefit to urban voters over suburban and rural voters," he said.

"My goal is for it to be as equivalent for everybody to have access to the ballot," Husted said. "I know there is an ample amount of time for people who want to vote to have every opportunity to cast that vote and have it counted."