In 2004, Ohio had the longest lines in the country on Election Day, with some voters -- particularly in large urban areas -- waiting as long as seven hours to vote. A DNC survey estimated that 174,000 Ohioans -- 3 percent of the state's electorate -- left without voting. George W. Bush won the state by just 118,000 votes.
In response to the long lines, Ohio adopted 35 days of early voting in 2008, including on nights and weekends, to make voting more convenient. But following the large Democratic turnout in 2008, Ohio Republicans drastically curtailed early voting in 2012 from 35 to 11 days, with no voting on the Sunday before the election, when African-American churches historically rally their congregants to go to the polls. Voting rights activists subsequently gathered enough signatures to block the new voting restrictions and force a referendum on Election Day. In reaction, Ohio Republicans repealed their own bill in the state legislature, but kept a ban on early voting three days before Election Day (when 98,000 Ohioans voted in 2008), adding an exception for active duty members of the military, who tend to lean Republican.
These cuts disproportionately impacted black voters, who made up a majority of early voters in large urban areas like Cleveland's Cuyahoga County and Dayton's Montgomery County in 2008. Ohio Republicans brazenly tried to cut early voting hours in Democratic counties while expanding them in Republican ones. GOP leaders admitted the cuts in Democratic counties were motivated by racial politics. "I guess I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine," said Doug Preisse, the GOP chair in Columbus's Franklin County.
These voter suppression efforts backfired in 2012. The Obama campaign successfully sued to reinstate early voting on the three days before Election Day (although Secretary of State Jon Husted limited the hours) and the overall share of the black electorate increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.
But now Ohio Republicans are once again resurrecting efforts to make it harder to vote. Last month, the GOP-controlled Ohio Senate, on a party-line vote, voted to cut early voting by a week, eliminating the "Golden Week" when Ohioans can register and vote on the same day during the early voting period [Senate Bill 238]. The legislation was introduced and passed in one week, with almost no time for substantive debate. The Senate also passed a bill preventing the Secretary of State or individual counties from mailing absentee ballots to all eligible voters unless the legislature provides the money, which they are unlikely to do [Senate Bill 205]. The Ohio House, which is also controlled by a large GOP majority, is holding hearings on the bills this week.
These restrictions -- and additional measures being considered by the legislature -- have the potential to impact millions of voters in the Buckeye State: 600,000 Ohioans voted early in 2012, more than 10 percent of the state's electorate, and 1.25 million voted by mail, 22 percent of the electorate.
"The voting rights community is raising the alarm because these laws in and of themselves are significant, but we fear they are the beginning of a wave of bills to make it harder to vote in Ohio," says Ellis Jacobs, founder of the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition.