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In Ohio, A Showdown Over Whether to “Accommodate the Urban—Read African-American—Voter-Turnout Machine”

While the political world focused over the weekend on Paul Ryan’s mom, Todd Akin’s weird science and drunken, buck-naked Republican congressmen in the Sea of Galilee, a showdown over voting rights was unfolding in Ohio. And in the middle of it came another flash of what Republicans seem unable to suppress these days—accidental candor over their political objectives in seeking to restrain voter access to the polls.

There are several battles underway over voting in the Buckeye State, where Barack Obama has, remarkably, been clinging to a slight lead barely smaller than his four point edge in the state in 2008, but where any drop-off in Democratic base turnout would severely hurt him. One battle concerns the state’s tough new rules regarding “provisional ballots,” ballots that are considered to have some flaw and can only be counted after deliberation following the election. The new rules decree, for one thing, that if ballots were cast in the wrong precinct, an easy mistake to make at polling places that often include several precincts—then the ballots will not count, even if an election worker caused the mistake.

Then there are two separate battles over early voting. One concerns the weekend just prior to the election when, as it now stands, only members of the military are allowed to vote in person at polling stations. The Obama campaign has filed a lawsuit arguing that this early voting should be open to all, not just members of the military. For this, it has been branded as anti-military—Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus famously declared that the lawsuit was seeking to “water down” the military’s early-voting privilege.

The latest fight concerns early voting in the weeks prior to the final weekend. Ohio law calls for plentiful early voting opportunities in these weeks, but leaves it up to county election boards to set the hours. Democratic election officials are in favor of setting hours as expansively as possible, especially on the weekends and weekday evenings, to make it easier for working people with fixed schedules to make it to the polls (and, yes, to make easier initiatives like “souls to polls,” when voters are bused from church to voting stations after Sunday services.) Republican election officials have tended to be in favor of expansive hours in Republican-leaning counties, but have been dead set against them in urban counties that lean heavily Democratic. In most of the cities, the election boards have deadlocked along partisan lines, which kicked the decision to the Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted, who sided with the Republican officials in limiting urban voting hours. This caused a furor, as it meant that there would be broader voting access in Republican counties than Democratic ones. In response, Husted decreed last week that there would be no weekend voting, period—a seemingly Solomonic decision that of course hit much harder in the Democratic-leaning cities where early voting is so heavily utilized. An estimated 200,000 people voted in 2008 in the hours that have now been eliminated.

Which brings us to the showdown. In protest of Husted’s decision, the two Democratic members of the Montgomery County elections board (in Dayton) voted late last week to proceed with early weekend voting, in contravention of his order. Husted told them that they were risking serious reprisal for doing so; their fate will be decided at a hearing today in Columbus.

Meanwhile, via yesterday's Columbus Dispatch came an impressively honest acknowledgment of what's behind the whole fight, from Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party (in Columbus) and a member of that county’s elections board. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban— read African-American —voter-turnout machine,” Preisse said. “Let’s be fair and reasonable.”

Yes, let’s.

*Update, 6 p.m. Monday: A hearing officer has yet to issue his ruling on the fate of the two Montgomery County election board members, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie, Sr. They remain under suspension for having contravened Husted's early voting order. The Dayton Daily News has a good wrap on where things now stand.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis