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Ohio GOP looks to turn clock back on voting

In 2004, some Ohio voters waited in line for 10 hours. After a slew of reforms, things went more smoothly in 2008 and ’12. Now Republicans want to go backward.
Voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting Monday, Nov. 5, 2012.
Voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting Monday, Nov. 5, 2012.

Back in 2004, some Ohioans waited in line for 10 hours to vote as President George W. Bush carried the state, and with it, the election. After reforms were put in place, voting went much more smoothly in 2008 and ’12, when Ohio twice went for Barack Obama.

So naturally, Republicans are now looking to turn the clock back a decade.

Tuesday, the state legislature will hold hearings on four new GOP-backed measures that, taken as a whole, could make voting much harder in the Buckeye State, especially for racial minorities, students, and the poor:

  • One bill would reduce the number of voting machines that counties must have on hand, almost inevitably leading to longer wait times at the polls.
  • A second would attack the state’s successful absentee ballot program. Last year, Secretary of State Jon Husted mailed absentee ballots to every registered voter, and nearly 1.3 million Ohioans cast one. But the new bill would dramatically limit the period when absentee ballots can be sent, and bar counties from sending them, instead allowing only the secretary of state, with approval from lawmakers, to do so.
  • A third measure would cut early voting by six days and end same-day registration, when voters can register and vote on the same day. Voting rights advocates say they expect additional drastic cuts to the early voting period.
  • And a fourth would reduce from 10 to three the number of days given to voters casting a provisional ballot to return with the information needed to make their vote count.

The proposed voting restrictions were flagged Saturday by the blog Plunderbund, which has closely followed the fight over voting rights in Ohio.

The clear combined effect would be not just to reduce opportunities for voting. It would also be to significantly increase the number of voters showing up on Election Day, while reducing the number of machines made available to them. The obvious likely result: longer lines at the polls, deterring some voters from casting a ballot.

We've been here before. The excessive lines in Ohio in 2004, concentrated in urban areas with high minority populations, turned the state into the poster child for election problems, and spurred reforms over the next few years. (One DNC study found 174,000 would-be voters left before casting a ballot, thanks to the lines.) Among those reforms were increased early and absentee voting, and efforts to ensure counties had the right amount of staff and equipment at each polling place. The last two presidential elections saw no repeat of 2004’s problems.

Still, not everything went perfectly last year, when there were several reports of long lines in urban centers after Republicans cut early voting hours. That suggests that further reductions in early and absentee voting could be disastrous.

“It’s very well documented the problems we had in 2004, with the horrible long lines,” Carrie Davis, the executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, told msnbc. “The reason we opened up absentee and early voting to everyone … was to combat the long lines and problems we had back in ‘04. This is taking us backwards.”

Any voting legislation passed by lawmakers would go to the desk of Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, who has said little about his stance on the issue.

A commission appointed by President Obama this year aims to reduce long lines at the polls, after some Florida voters waited eight hours or more last fall. The panel is scheduled to produce recommendations by early January.