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Ohio Early Voting Ruling Appealed By John Husted, Deepening Confusion Over Election Laws

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OHIO EARLY VOTING
A line forms outside the entrance to the Hamilton County Board of Elections for early voting, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in Cincinnati. | AP

Earlier this week when Ohio's Secretary of State John Husted said he'd appeal a court ruling that would reinstate early voting on the last three days before Election Day, the announcement threw an already chaotic run-up to the elections into further confusion. Local election officials said they don't know how to inform their poll workers or voters. Ministers have stalled their Souls to the Polls campaigns. And Husted has raised the ante in the latest round between the state's Democrats and Republicans over expanding or limiting voter access.

"The problem is we have no clue what's going on," said Tim Burke, a Democrat and chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati. "I am absolutely convinced that this is part of an overall strategy."

President Barack Obama's campaign and Democrats had sued Husted, the state's election chief, and Ohio's attorney general for eliminating early voting for most residents in the last three days before the Tuesday election.

Last week the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling and sided with the Obama campaign, allowing expanded early voting in those final days before the election. On Tuesday Husted announced that he'd ask the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether or not federal courts can override election laws set by the state legislature. Husted called the ruling "an unprecedented intrusion" into how states run elections.

The Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will hear the case.

Husted said the appeals court's ruling would affect how elections are run in all 50 states.

"This ruling not only doesn't make legal sense, it doesn't make practical sense," Husted, a Republican, said in a statement.

Last year Republican legislators pushed through a law that restricted early voting on those final few days before the election, and Democrats challenged the law in court, claiming it was unconstitutional because it only limited early in-person voting for some voters, while others, including active members of the military and their families, could still vote on those days.

Opponents of the law say the move is part of a push to suppress likely Democratic voters, including African Americans and Latinos, who in 2008 turned out in record numbers and disproportionately took advantage of early and weekend voting.

Over the summer there was further uproar in several of the state's urban counties, where Republican election board members pushed through rules that cut voting hours in those counties, where the populations have large minority and Democratic voting blocs. Meanwhile, election boards in rural counties, with Republican majorities, expanded their voting hours. In cases where Republicans were not the majority on the boards, their votes forced ties for which Husted held the decisive vote.

In 2008 about 93,000 voters in Ohio cast their ballots on the final three days before Election Day. In Hamilton County, Burke said that almost 1,500 people voted on the Saturday before the election and another 1,600 voted the Monday immediately preceding Election Day. (The county's board of elections was closed on Sunday.)

While African Americans of voting age made up only 28 percent of the population of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, 56 percent of early voters were black, according to the Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates.

Four years ago, Burke said, the line of early voters snaked from the board of elections office down a few flights of stairs, out of the building and around several blocks.

"All you had to do is look at that line and who was in it and you can understand why [Republicans] don't want to see that duplicated again," Burke said. "The line was very heavily African American. I'm not going to say this is racial. I think this targets voters they suspect of being Democrats."

"God forbid we would be open on Sunday," he added, "The black ministers would fill up their buses and bring people to vote."

Not long after Husted's announcement on Tuesday -- incidentally, the last day to register to vote in Hamilton County and elsewhere in Ohio -- ministers brought busloads of churchgoers from all over Cincinnati and the county to register and vote, for a day filled with events and speakers, even providing a meal before the trip.

Pastor Rousseau O'Neil of Rockdale Baptist Church joined his church members and nearly a thousand others from all over the city to cast their ballots. Everyone was full of excitement and energy, he said. But for Rousseau, beneath all of the enthusiasm was a simmering anger over what he described as political gamesmanship at the cost of voting rights.

"What's going on here is the most political thing you ever heard of," said Rousseau. "Four years ago we went down in droves ... This voter suppression issue, to this extent -- No, we didn't expect this. It was by design to throw us off balance to keep us down, literally."

The political antics, the pastor said, hark back to the days of Jim Crow-style voter disenfranchisement.

"To see this revisited not even a generation later, but almost in the same time frame, it's unimaginable," he said.

Meanwhile, ColorOfChange.org has launched a petition drive that has so far collected about 66,000 signatures calling for the preservation of the early voting days.

The group has led protests, letter-writing campaigns and phone bank drives.

"All of these attempts are part of a coordinated attempt to keep certain folks from the polls," said Rashad Robinson, director of the organization. "It's import for all of us to be vigilant and all of us to stand up and for the courts to act the way that they have in these situations, and to do what the court is supposed to do: stand up for what's right."

State Republicans have said the elimination of early voting would lessen the burden of election workers in the lead-up to the election.

But Caleb Faux, a Democrat and member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said that the new laws, their repeal, the extension and simultaneous expansion of voting hours in various counties has cast a cloud over the entire elections process.

"I think what we have is confusion, and I personally think that confusion is intentional," said Faux, who is also the executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "At this point we have no idea what to tell people."

By taking the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, Faux said Husted has "dragged out any finality on this issue even longer and added to the confusion."

"I think it exposes a clear political motivation," said Faux.

UPDATE: 6:01 p.m. -- Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Husted, said the secretary of state has requested that the Supreme Court expedite the appeal.

"Obviously we want this matter resolved in a timely matter," McClellan told The Huffington Post. "This really comes down to a belief that states should be able to run their elections, not federal courts. That is why he ultimately chose to appeal."

McClellan said that both Democratic and Republican legislators unanimously passed the bill that eliminated the three last voting days before Election Day, and that Husted hopes to bring less confusion and more uniformity to the electoral process by setting uniform voting days and hours.

Cutting those days allows election workers to prepare for Election Day and ensure that all absentee voters (so far 7 million absentee ballot applications have been mailed out) are properly noted, McClellan said, in order to prevent people from trying to vote by mail-in ballot and in person.

In no way have the voting rules been designed to disenfranchise voters, he said.

"In no way is there an effort to disenfranchise or suppress any voter," McClellan said. "We are confident that it is easy for Ohioans to vote in this election, whether they want to vote by mail or in person. And let's not forget they can still vote on Election Day."

He added, "We're trying to make it easy, uniform and, at the end of the day, make sure it's secure."

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