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The Secretary's Setback: The Polls Will Stay Open in Ohio

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The battle over early voting in Ohio might, finally, be over. The crusader for limiting voters' access to the polls, Secretary of State Jon Husted, took a fatal blow from the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday. They declined to hear his appeal of the decision of lower courts that favored keeping the polls open the weekend before the November 6 election. The unelected justices-for-life did democracy a favor.

When I last wrote about the efforts of Republican legislatures across the United States to restrict voting, it seemed that Ohio's saga was concluding. After Husted's plan to selectively limit early voting in Democratic counties was called out for the "overt discrimination" that it was, an agreement was reached to keep hours uniform across all counties, Democratic and Republican-leaning alike. But that uniformity also meant closing evening and weekend hours across the state, including the three days prior to the November 6 election. This thing wasn't over.

The Obama campaign, the Democratic National Party, and the Ohio Democratic Party took Husted to court. The U.S. District Court ruled in their favor and restored early voting on the three days preceding the election. They found Husted's order nothing less than "unconstitutional," and that only by restoring those three days would Ohio's election process be "uniform, accessible for all, fair, and secure." Undeterred, Husted appealed, and in the meantime would not order counties to open early voting that weekend.

Hiring an attorney whose portfolio includes a recent challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Husted appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court. His luck was no better there -- they agreed with the lower court. On to the United States Supreme Court Husted went, and in one unanimous sentence they declined him. The polls will be open November 3-5 in Ohio.

Getting to this outcome has been messy and uncomfortable. It has involved resignations-in-protest and suspensions at the state-level. A Republican adviser to the governor justified the secretary of state's efforts in plainly racist terms, noting that the state should not have to accommodate "the urban -- read African American -- voter turnout machine." At the same time, billboards going up exclusively in the communities of those urban voters warned of the frightening consequences of voter fraud. This battle has been rubbing to the raw to reveal implicit racism and voter disenfranchisement efforts in a state already divided by politics and wounded by the economy.

Vote counts already show that thousands, as many as one in ten likely voters, have gone to the polls to vote early; several counties show double the turnout as in the last elections. On Wednesday, I drove down to Summit County to check out the early voting in Akron, Ohio. Walking in and out of the Board of Elections, everyone's gait seemed as crisp and cheery as the radiant red and yellow leaves around us. Except for the handicap people, that is, whose turnout seemed nearly equal to their able-bodied counterparts. Yes, Secretary Husted, they are some of the people who benefit from early voting.

Who else? There is Harold, who wanted to avoid the crowd on Election Day. He drives the metro in town. Because he has to take a day off of work to vote, he didn't want to spend it in lines; he figures he'll get some other errands done too. Lisa, a middle-aged white woman, also wanted voting to fit comfortably into her life. There for the second day in a row, she had dropped off the ballots of her in-laws, both beset by physical disabilities, the day prior. Lisa herself has health problems: "I don't know day to day how I'm going to be doing." She knew today she was doing well, so she came in and cast her own ballot.

Others are clearly more politically active, or at least decided, than the general population. Daniel, for instance, voted early so that he could get to work helping others vote as well. On Election Day, he and his wife will both be poll observers. Larry Ashbaugh and wife Jackie will also be busy that day. A retired army officer and proud conservative, Larry is running for Summit County Council. By voting early, he will be freed up to serve his campaign on November 6. I also spoke with a rather excited graduate student from the University of Akron, Carl. He knew to whom he was giving his votes, and he just wanted to do it. This was his first time voting in person, having only voted absentee in the past, and he was upbeat about the process.

Proud citizens, working citizens, handicap citizens -- they all have their reasons. Some of those reasons (like being working class) concern the Republican administration, given that Obama already leads Romney in early votes by 20 points. But our votes shouldn't be precious and fragile, susceptible to inconveniences and disenfranchisement. They are our right, and Ohioans know it like no one else.