Early voters line up in Columbus, Ohio. (Michael Finnegan / Los Angeles…)
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Dale Snyder Sr., the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Columbus, surveyed the scene with satisfaction: Thousands of people, most of them African American, were waiting in a line that curved round and round the parking lot outside Franklin County’s early voting center.
Republicans had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in their losing battle to stop just such a scene from occurring this weekend in Ohio. But there they were, most of them supporters of President Obama, braving a 45-degree chill for up to two hours to cast their ballots.
From Snyder’s standpoint, the Republican gambit had backfired. Bethel AME was one of 69 black churches in Columbus that had organized caravans of buses, vans and cars to take congregants to the strip mall where Franklin County had set up its lone early voting site.
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Similar scenes unfolded Sunday in Cleveland, Cincinnati and other Ohio cities where the Souls to the Polls project was producing thousands more early votes for the president’s reelection. Many of those who showed up, Snyder said, were galvanized by the Republican drive to block weekend voting.
“What it did was activate the churches and the religious community and unions,” he said. “When you try to take away something that somebody already owns, then you inspire them to protect it.”
For two hours, Cynthia Alfred of Columbus limped forward, leaning on her cane, as the line advanced toward the bank of 100 voting machines set up in a former department store.
“I’m standing here, crippled as I am, to get Obama back in there,” said Alfred, 54, who has lupus. “If I had to stand here for two days without food and water to vote, it’s worth it.”
Some supporters of Mitt Romney showed up too. One of them, Kelly Miller, 27, who works in an orthopedics office, said, “Ohio’s a big state for the election, so I just wanted to make sure I got out and voted.”
But no one doubted that Ohio’s early weekend voting was functioning mainly – as it did in 2008 – as a voter turnout machine for Obama, just as Republicans had feared. African Americans, students, women – each of Obama’s strongest constituencies turned out in force in Columbus.
Brock Howard, 23, an Ohio State University student who voted for the first time on Sunday, said he was grateful that Obama’s healthcare law had let him stay on his parents' health plan. “It’s fantastic,” he said.
After casting her ballot for Obama, Heidi Shapiro, 33, a Columbus textbook editor, said, “Romney’s social conservatism is terrifying for me.”
In 2008, Obama won 60% of the vote in Franklin County. It produced 334,709 of his votes in Ohio, second only to Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland.
Ohio’s Republican Legislature later passed a law barring early voting in person on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before this year’s election. Obama’s campaign filed a federal lawsuit to stop enforcement of the law. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, fought the case, but lost.
“He did not believe it was the place of a federal court to be telling a state how to administer its elections,” said Husted spokesman Matt McClellan.
Romney spokesman Chris Maloney dismissed the significance of weekend voting for Obama. “Whatever enthusiasm Democrats claim to have seized upon has been significantly mitigated by the closing argument of Barack Obama’s campaign, which has served to alienate independent voters due to its abject negativity and lack of substance,” he said.
Over the last several weeks, more than 60,000 voters have cast ballots at Franklin County’s early voting center, said Ben Piscitelli, a spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections. Even before thousands more showed up to vote this weekend, that surpassed the county’s total number of early in-person votes four years ago – 57,000.
In the end, Romney could wind up offsetting Obama’s strength in Ohio’s urban counties with a strong turnout of his own supporters in rural and suburban areas. Whoever wins Ohio’s 18 electoral votes is likely to win the presidency.
“It’s a Toss-up,” screamed the banner headline on the front page of Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch. The newspaper’s final poll on the presidential race in Ohio found Obama leading Romney, 50% to 48% -- within the margin of sampling error.
Obama supporters have fretted over the relatively weak enthusiasm for the president at a time when Republicans are energized to oust him from the White House. But at the early voting center in Columbus on Sunday, there was no sign of trouble for Obama.
Twila Jones drove a van to the voting center. Her passengers were 16 parishioners of Smyrna Baptist Church, and the van was just one of the church vehicles used for Souls to the Polls. The pastor, Bishop Fred Marshall, was in another car.
“He was riding around with his Obama sign hanging out of his trunk,” she said. “We were laughing.”
On Twitter: @Finneganlatimes