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Expert Brief

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.

  • DeNora Getachew
Published: 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.