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After early voting cuts, Souls to the Polls takes a hit in Ohio

Ohio saw a major Souls to the Polls drive on the one remaining day of Sunday voting. But black leaders said cuts to early voting had helped reduce turnout.

CLEVELAND – African-American leaders across Ohio used the state’s only remaining Sunday of early voting to organize a major Souls to the Polls drive. But turnout was disappointing, stoking fears that the Republican-backed cuts to early voting in a crucial swing state are going to be proven effective in the midterms. 

With fall rapidly turning to winter here, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo, among other cities, all saw efforts to deliver worshipers to the polls en masse after services—a practice that in recent years has become an election season tradition for African-American communities across the country. But participation mostly wasn’t overwhelming.

“From what I can see, the turnout was not what we would have liked it to be,” said Rev. Jimmy Gates, the pastor of Cleveland’s Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, who helped coordinate around twenty local church drives.

Todd Davidson, the senior pastor at Antioch Baptist Church, echoed that view.

“We’ve participated in this for a number of years, and I’m certain we’ll see diminished numbers,” Davidson said in an interview in his office, shortly after delivering a sermon in which he urged congregants to make their voices heard at the polls.

Gates and others said many members of Ohio’s black community still don’t recognize the importance of voting in midterm elections, when the presidency isn't at stake. That’s been made worse this year, when GOP Gov. John Kasich looks set to cruise to re-election after a lackluster campaign run by his Democratic opponent, Ed FitzGerald. And neither of Ohio’s two Senate seats is up this year.

But several black leaders said the Republican cuts had also played a role. 

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Jon Husted, eliminated all Sunday voting—putting the future of the state’s Souls to the Polls drives at risk—as well as cutting weekday evening hours. Days earlier, Kasich and Republican lawmakers had ended Golden Week, when Ohioans could register and vote on the same day. Voting on the final Sunday before the election was ultimately restored by a federal judge—though Husted limited it to four hours. The other cuts were challenged as racially discriminatory in a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups, who offered compelling evidence that the modes of voting at issue were used disproportionately by Ohio’s minorities. But just days before the start of the early voting period, the Supreme Court approved the rest of the cuts for this election. A full trial on the cuts is scheduled for next year.

State Rep. Alicia Reece, who organized a Souls to the Polls effort in Cincinnati involving around 10 churches, said the confusion about the voting schedule—made worse by a sequence of competing court rulings in the weeks before the election—had an impact on turnout. She said she spoke to church leaders who didn’t know that Sunday voting was still an option.

Related: Hundreds of thousands of voters may be silenced on Election Day

Davidson, the Antioch Baptist pastor, said the cuts to evening hours were perhaps the most damaging, because many low-income voters simply can’t get off work in time to vote during the day.

“Those evening hours were tremendously helpful to folks who needed to go at a certain time of night,” Davidson said. “So those cuts I think are going to cut to the core of the principle of everyone having access to the vote.”

At a campaign event outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, where all of Cleveland’s early voting takes place, a slew of state and local Democratic candidates braved the chilly weather while rallying supporters and blasting Republican efforts to hinder access to the ballot.

“They wouldn’t be trying to take our vote if it didn’t mean something,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and whose district includes parts of Cleveland.

The event was organized by state Sen. Nina Turner, who has made voting rights the centerpiece of her challenge to Husted, the secretary of state.

The cuts may have an even greater impact if they’re still in effect in 2016, when Ohio could again determine the presidential race. That’s because, with minority turnout typically far higher in presidential elections, reduced early voting could cause long lines on Election Day. In 2004, some voters in urban neighborhoods and on college campuses waited over ten hours in line, leading many to give up in frustration.

This year, Reece led a grassroots effort for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, establishing a “Voter’s Bill of Rights,” which would make it far harder to restrict voting in Ohio. Her group fell short of the number of signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot, but is continuing to circulate petitions.

“People want to know what they can do to make sure that this Souls to the Polls does stay around,” Reece said.

Letitia Noll, who was waiting in line to vote at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and is African-American, said that if the lone day of Sunday voting had also been eliminated, as Republicans wanted, her work schedule would have made it difficult to get to the polls.  

“It would be very hard to vote,” without Sunday voting, said Noll.