In Ohio, Democrats in 'Make-or-Break' Fight Over Early Voting

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As President Obama visits Ohio, his army of campaign volunteers there is engaged in a "make-or-break" fight to roll back Republican-imposed voting restrictions they say will limit critical support for the president ahead of Election Day 2012.

A new law, signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in July, would shorten by two weeks the window for early voting by mail and in-person, eliminate early voting the three days before the election, and cease automatic mailing of absentee ballots to all registered voters in the state's largest counties, among other measures.

Democrats and Obama relied heavily on the extended early voting period to turn out support in 2008 and 2010. They are now fighting to save the system with a statewide petition campaign, driven largely by Obama's grassroots volunteers.

If they reach more than 231,300 signatures by the end of the month, the new law will remain on hold through the 2012 election, giving Obama an advantage headed into the campaign and allowing voters a chance to weigh in directly through a referendum.

If they don't get the signatures by Sept. 29, the law will immediately take effect, potentially hampering Democrats' efforts to turn out their vote.

"We're ahead of where we need to be," said Brian Rothenberg, who's leading the coalition of progressive groups fighting the change, "but it is very critical."

"Reducing early voting to three weeks will have a major impact," he said. "Remember, the current system was put in place after 2004 when we had all the long lines. Some people waited over 10 hours to vote."

In 2008, some 1.4 million Ohioans voted before Election Day, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University.

An informational flyer produced by the Obama campaign says the new rules would force many of those voters to find a new time and place or way to vote in 2012, unless supporters put up a "citizens' veto."

But state Democrats say it's not just voters who stand to lose out with the new changes, but their candidates – including the president – as well.

"We've been better at taking advantage of early voting than Republicans," said Seth Bringman, communications director of the Ohio Democratic Party.

"Instead of one Election Day, there's 35 election days," Bringman said. "The Obama campaign took advantage of that in 2008, and went into Election Day with a wide lead because of the early vote margin that had been acquired prior to Election Day."

Republicans say the process is too long, too costly for budget-strapped counties and too prone to fraud and abuse. They also insist trimming the early voting window -- not eliminating it entirely -- does not upend the convenience of the current process.

"Would it be that Democrats couldn't get out their vote in a shorter period of time, or that they couldn't get their people to vote on Election Day? I think that's very up in the air, since Republicans are simply shrinking the time frame," said Kenyon College political scientist John M. Elliott.

Still, Obama supporters say the voting restrictions -- coupled with pending measures, like a tougher voter ID law, and separately-passed restrictions on union rights -- are all meant to disadvantage Democrats headed into a tough campaign.

"It smacks of partisan gamesmanship," Rothenberg said. "I'll leave it to others to make the partisan judgments. What I can tell you is that the loser in all this is the voter."

"Republicans are making all the kinds of arguments you'd have heard back in the Jim Crow days, too," he said.

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