Turn on your television or radio in Ohio today and what do you hear? Commercials and political commentary filled with raised voices, angry voices, cynical voices and acidic voices. The prevailing wisdom is that the best way to win the day and win this election is by destroying the other. In this swing-state many believe most likely to decide the presidential election, the rhetoric can be particularly disheartening.
In Ohio, restrictions on in-person early voting opportunities have sparked heated debate. If there is one issue that should cut through partisan bickering and distortion, it ought to be the desire for all eligible people to vote, and to make voting opportunities as easy and accessible as possible.
Over the past eight years bipartisan elected officials have markedly increased opportunities to vote early, either by mail or in person, throughout Ohio. Many of the state's urban counties, where election-day lines can be particularly arduous, have taken the opportunity to add select weekend hours for in-person early voting in the past several elections.
This summer, as county boards of election set early vote hours in Ohio, some suburban and rural counties decided to have more extensive in-person early vote hours than some urban counties, with decisions breaking along partisan lines. When this led journalists to raise questions and lawsuits were filed, Ohio's Secretary of State John Husted decided to set uniform early voting hours that would be the same in all 88 counties in Ohio. With this ruling, he also eliminated the possibility of in-person weekend voting.
Given how important weekend voting has been during the last few election cycles in Ohio, and particularly in African-American communities, many expressed appreciation for the uniformity of Husted's ruling and also frustration that all weekend hours were lost.
In response, Ohio Prophetic Voices, a diverse faith-rooted coalition of clergy and congregations from across Ohio, requested a meeting with John Husted. His office agreed to a 30-minute meeting with around 20 Ohio clergy on Thursday, Aug. 30.
Secretary of State Husted joined a racially diverse group of clergy representing a dozen different denominations for a conversation that lasted over an hour. Pastors asked that Husted allow voting hours the last weekend in October for those counties who wanted it, and that he agree to meet with Ohio Prophetic Voices after the election to reflect on voting access and participation in 2012 and how to improve the process in the future.
In the end, Husted refused to budge on weekend voting hours, but did agree to meet with Ohio Prophetic Voices after the election. This outcome was not a surprise. What was significant was the kind of conversation that happened over the hour we spent together.
Many clergy passionately shared their concerns about the end of weekend voting, and the effect it will have on their communities and congregations. Secretary Husted asserted his belief that he is trying to be as fair as possible, and also that we all need to do all we can to get people to register to vote and for all voices to be heard on election day.
In a room filled with passion and intensity, there were no raised voices, angry voices, cynical voices or acidic voices. People did not talk over one another. We actually listened to one another.
There was tension, particularly around the lengths some in Cincinnati took to prevent the votes of African Americans from being counted in the 2010 election for a juvenile court judge position. There remained strong disagreement around the decision to not allow weekend voting. That said, the tone of the meeting was set through prayer and respect.
Remarkably, the day after the conversation with John Husted, a federal judge ordered that Ohio must allow for weekend voting and early vote the three final days before the election, so weekend hours are, for the time being, once again available in Ohio, validating the heartfelt concern of the clergy who met with John Husted.
As I reflect on the past week, not only do I celebrate the increased access to in-person early vote in Ohio, I also celebrate the dialogue we had with our Secretary of State, and the common passion and commitment of all of us to work hard to make sure all eligible voters register and cast a ballot in this year's election.
In this toxic environment, where partisan operatives are spending billions of dollars to deliberately distort and demonize candidates and opponents, the meeting with Secretary Husted reminds me that it is still possible to speak the truth with passion and conviction without resorting to hatred. Dialogue is still possible. We can cry out for justice while respecting the humanity and value of the other. We can still "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).