In a swing state like Ohio, who gets to vote and when is critical. This is evidenced by the recent controversy in the state about early voting restrictions. The disagreement has two main issues – special accommodations for members of the military, and the elimination of early voting three days before Election Day. These two issues are connected, as members of the military and civilians overseas would technically have been allowed to vote during the three day period United States-based Ohioans would be barred from early voting.
Proponents of the early voting restrictions claim that they are necessary in order to provide election officials time to update voting records and prevent voter fraud. Opponents argue that they are arbitrary and disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters. This issue caught national media attention when the Obama and Romney campaigns took oppositional positions on the matter. An Ohio District Court judge found the restrictions a violation of the equal protection clause. Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine quickly announced his decision to appeal the matter to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the lower court. The Supreme Court declined to block early voting. This issue has ended for now, though others press on.
In rural Wayne County, Ohio, the Board of Elections moved forward despite this litigation. Wayne County boasts an estimated population of 114,611, covers over 550 square miles, and in 2007, had a cow and calf population of 90,212. On September 27, 2012, Wayne County Board of Elections Director Nancy Hamilton discussed the effect of these and other newly implemented election rules at the local level.
[Editor’s Note: Some of the statements reflect the ongoing nature of the case at the time of this interview, when early voting was still before the Court of Appeals.]
Hamilton explained that the 2008 presidential election “cost a little over $440,000.” This amount included “salaries…licensing fees for some of [the] equipment…[and] poll workers.” Wayne County has 85 precincts with four poll workers per precinct, and each poll worker is paid $106. This year, the County had to train over 400 poll workers for Election Day, and had to pay each poll worker $5 for attending. According to Hamilton, the Secretary of State is picking up the tab – but only for this election.
An additional expense in this year’s election was absentee ballots – Ohio’s Secretary of State sent out an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter in the state. Hamilton explained that the County’s “little ballot printer would not be able to keep up with all of the ballots so [they] had to outsource,” at a rate of 38 cents per ballot plus an additional $1.30 per ballot in postage, for a current total of 5500 absentee ballots.
The absentee ballot requests shot up so much that the Board of Elections had to hire 10 part time people and pay them $9 an hour in order to keep up. Hamilton stated, “there are a lot of people voting absentee who would probably not have done so if the Secretary of State hadn’t sent out absentee voter applications,” and that the County is receiving about 200-300 applications a day, putting them at about double the absentee voter applications for this election than they had at this time during the 2008 election. In addition, the county “had to order about 20,000 ballots at 38 cents apiece just for the office,” and about 10,000 more for the precincts in case voters don’t want to wait in long lines in order to vote by machine.
Early voting barely registers as an expense in comparison to the county’s paper costs. Hamilton said that Wayne County has joined one other Ohio county in deciding to hold early voting hours despite the State’s appeal, explaining that “the weekend thing went haywire, and [Wayne County] is waiting for something to happen.” In the meantime, the Wayne County Board of elections plans to hold early voting on the Saturday and Monday preceding the election. The County had early voting from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on the two Saturdays prior to the 2008 election, and Hamilton stated that Wayne County voters took advantage of the early voting.
Hamilton estimates that the only cost early voting will bring to the county is paying for part-time workers to staff the Board of Elections on Saturday. On Monday, Hamilton explained, staff will already be at the Board of Elections preparing for Tuesday. Hamilton hopes that providing early voting will relieve pressure from precincts on Election Day. For counties like Wayne, “considered a large county” by the state, early voting may be a way to “make everything fair across Ohio so [that] everyone has the same chance to vote.”
Elizabeth Herron is a second-year student at William & Mary Law.