An Ohio poll worker explains a ballot to a voter during an early-voting day… (Chris Hondros, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — President Obama won the crucial states of Florida and Ohio in 2008 in part because of a heavy turnout of African Americans who voted on the weekend before election day.
But this year, Republican officials have decreed that polling places will not be open on the weekend before the Nov. 6 election, embroiling both states in a continuing partisan controversy.
Last week, a federal three-judge court in Washington blocked a Florida law reducing the days for early voting, saying the law violated the Voting Rights Act in parts of the state. One part of the act forbids Southern states and counties with a history of voting problems from changing election laws in a way that hurts racial minorities.
The judges said 54% of the state's black voters had cast their ballots during the early voting period in 2008, a rate twice that of white voters. Cutting back on early voting would "lead to substantially increased lines, overcrowding and confusion at the polls," the judges said.
"Many African American churches organize 'souls to the polls' drives to transport their congregants to early voting sites on the Sunday" before election day, they added.
But the decision applied to only five counties, including Hillsborough County, the site of next week's Republican National Convention. And Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said the ruling would not prevent the state from reducing early voting in the other 62 counties. Last year, the state's GOP-controlled Legislature voted to reduce the time for early voting from 14 days to eight and to close the polls on the weekend prior to the election.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, has opposed the change. "The early voting was very popular and it worked very well," she said. "So why are we changing it?"
In Ohio, 105,000 voters cast ballots on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday prior to the 2008 election, but last week, Secretary of State Jon Husted ordered polling places to be open early on weekdays only. His order was applauded by some because it meant all 88 Ohio counties would follow the same voting schedule.
"Voting is uniform, accessible, fair and secure," said Husted, a former Republican lawmaker and Ohio House speaker. When two Democrats on the county election board in Dayton voted to extend early voting into the weekend, Husted ordered them suspended and removed from office.
"Voting is easy in Ohio," said his spokesman, Matt McClellan. "A person has ample time to vote," either in person or by mail, he said.
But Obama's lawyers sued, arguing for restoring the rules that allowed working voters to cast their ballots on the weekend. They noted that Ohio said it would open its polling places to allow military members and their families to vote during the weekend prior to the election. A federal judge heard the case last week, and a decision is expected soon.
Last weekend, the Republican county chairman in Columbus said he agreed with the decision to abolish weekend voting. "I guess I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African American — voter-turnout machine," Doug Preisse told the Columbus Dispatch.
Florida and Ohio adopted early voting after they had close elections that were marred by complaints about long lines at polling places. Florida's votes decided the 2000 presidential race, and Ohio's were crucial in 2004.
Ion Sancho, election supervisor in Leon County, Fla., said the state did not have enough voting machines and precincts.
"We have 11.4 million voters," he said. "We simply can't accommodate them all on election day. Early voting has been the way we redistribute this massive voting population so we don't shut down the voting precincts."
Florida and Ohio also have liberal rules for voting by mail. But election officials say many African Americans have a lingering suspicion of putting their ballots in their mail. Instead, they insist on voting in person.
Scott said he still believed he could persuade the federal court to approve the reduced voting schedule if the five counties agreed to open the polls early for eight days but keep them open for 12 hours per day. The federal judges in Washington said that could pass muster under the Voting Rights Act because the total number of hours for early voting would be the same as in 2008.
But Harry Sawyer, election supervisor in the Florida Keys, has refused to go along. A Republican who has served 24 years, Sawyer said the 14 days of early voting had worked well and should not be changed. The governor in turn threatened to remove him for office.
Election experts differ on whether reducing the time for early voting could affect the final vote.
"I think both Democrats and Republicans think [the change] will have a disparate impact on African Americans," Columbia Law School professor Nate Persily said. "As to whether it will affect outcomes in those states, the answer is probably not, unless the election is close."