Voting 2014: Stories from Ohio

Ohio voters had fewer options for how to cast their ballots due to new restrictions on early voting, which had a particular impact on "Souls to the Polls" drives.

December 5, 2014

America’s struggle for voting rights continues. In the 2014 election, new voting restrictions were in place in 21 states — 14 for the first time in a federal election. These laws ranged from voter ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration limits. In this new series — Voting 2014: Stories from the States — the Brennan Center is collecting stories of citizens who have been unfairly impacted by these new restrictions. Click here to see the entire series.

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Background

In 2014, Ohio voters had fewer options for how to cast their ballots before Election Day due to new restrictions on early voting. These cuts led to problems, confusion, and possible lost votes — and they are part of a long and troubling soap opera of limiting voting rights in Ohio.

Ohio’s problem-ridden history of election administration garnered great attention over a decade ago when thousands of voters stood in lines for hours and still did not have a chance to cast their ballot in 2004. To clean up the mess, before the 2008 presidential election, Ohio added 35 days of early voting. Voters took advantage of early voting — in 2010, approximately 183,000 Ohioans voted during the early in-person voting period.

Despite this success, the Ohio legislature has repeatedly tried to scale back early voting. In 2012, they reduced early voting the weekend before the election. Fortunately, the restriction was blocked and voters were able to cast ballots as usual. Then, in 2014, the legislature cut six days of early voting, including “Golden Week” during which voters could register and cast a ballot in one trip. Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) also issued a directive, which eliminated Sunday voting, except on the Sunday before the election, and evening voting after 5 p.m.

These cuts marked a substantial deviation from the early voting hours during the 2008 and 2012 elections. Husted’s stated rationale for the cuts was that he was creating uniformity so all Ohio voters had the same opportunity to vote. But creating uniform hours meant many citizens in counties who previously benefited from and utilized extended evening and weekend hours could no longer take advantage of this flexibility. 

Advocates challenged these restrictions in court. In September, a district court issued a preliminary injunction — meaning early voting would go forward as usual and the days that were cut would be restored. However, just 16 hours before Ohio’s Golden Week was slated to begin, the Supreme Court  blocked Ohio from starting early voting. This lawsuit is still pending in the courts

Last-Minute Changes Cause Confusion

Although we do not have enough information to assess the impact of Ohio’s early voting cuts on this year’s election, we do know based on conversations with local officials that last-minute changes caused confusion and made it harder to get voters to the polls.

“Souls to the Polls” drives are one example. African-American churches in Ohio have used Souls to the Polls drives to bring their congregations to vote early on Sundays leading up to the election. This year, many pastors and elected officials who organized the efforts said confusion about early voting hours made it more difficult to coordinate their drives.

Ohio religious leaders and organizers shared their stories with the Brennan Center.

  • Reverend Todd Davidson of the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, has been conducting GOTV efforts of the church’s 1,500 members through Souls to the Polls since 2011. During the 2012 election, he said the church was responsible for bringing between 200 and 300 individuals to the polls. But in 2014, the church brought just 45 voters to the polls. Although he could not attest to whether the 2012 voters just did not cast ballots in 2014, Reverend Davidson placed some of the blame on confusion over new voting rules, expressing disappointment with the apparent correlation between the drop in GOTV turnout and the cuts to early voting times that were after business hours and on weekends. “Because of the last minute decision by the court, the [church] was forced to hold off on their advertising because they did not want to give incorrect information,” he said. 
  • Brian Davis, director of community organizing for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, expressed similar concerns. The last-minute changes canceling Golden Week, Davis noted, made it difficult for his organization to coordinate transportation to bring voters to the polls. That was particularly harmful because Golden Week “provides the best access to participation for those who move frequently.” Early voting cuts were incredibly restrictive to the homeless population of Cleveland because “40 percent of the homeless [population] work, [and] it is easier to coordinate rides [after 5:00 p.m.],” he said. Although there was the one Sunday of early voting, Davis observed waiting times were well over an hour that day.