Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Early Voting in Ohio Begins

Early Voting in Ohio Begins

By Steven Rosenfeld

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What a difference four years makes. In 2004 in Columbus, Ohio, thousands of inner city voters spent hours waiting in line in a cold rain to vote for president. On Tuesday, as the state began early voting for the 2008 presidential election, many of those same people – and new voters – walked into polling places or were driven there in van pools.

"I feel better this year about voting because I didn’t feel it would be stolen or misplaced again," said Scohbaka Washington, who was one of the first to vote as Ohio began its "in person absentee voting" for 2008 presidential election. In 2006, Ohio expanded its early voting options; previously people needed to give reasons for voting by absentee ballot.

Washington, who waited six hours to vote in 2004, marveled at the difference. "Look at all the workers here," he said. "They know the value of the vote. It will be protected."

Washington was not alone in praising the early voting option.

"It works for me. I got a ride here from Columbus State," said Routing Zhan, an English student who was ferried to the Veterans Memorial by Vote Today Ohio, an independent group seeking to bring 10,000 students from seven Ohio cities and college towns to the polls to register and to vote early -- before registration closes next Monday for 2008’s presidential election.

"There’s an amazing window of opportunity where people can register and vote early on the same day," said Cristina Moon, one of Vote Today Ohio’s organizers. "Instead of doing voter registration and then GOTV (get out the vote), you can do it all at once."

Vote Today Ohio was among a handful of groups -- most not affiliated with the Obama campaign or Democratic Party -- running van pools to ferry new voters and historically disenfranchised voters, such as minorities, poor people, students and the homeless to Franklin County’s early voting center. The group has 130 volunteers, 25 team leaders and rented a dozen vans to help students in Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown and Miami County.

"People are voting for the first time because they believe in a candidate for the first time," said Moon. "There is a movement. There is a feeling of people’s ability to affect change; of voting ourselves into power."

There were other independent efforts to bring voters to what these organizers call Ohio’s "golden week." Last week, the state’s Republican Party sued to stop likely Democratic voters from registering to vote and casting absentee ballots during this weeklong window. On Monday, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected their lawsuit. On Tuesday morning, the independent groups were all seeking to bring segments of society that have tended to vote Democratic in recent elections to Columbus' Veterans Memorial where dozens of Board of Election staffers and 54 voting booths awaited them.

P.G. Sittenfeld, co-founder of Vote From Home, a group founded by graduate students, was running several "early vote" taxis from inner city neighborhoods that he said "were affected by long lines in 2004."

Sittenfeld said his group had targeted 10,000 people who they were hoping to shepherd through the voting process in Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton. "We will follow up to make sure they get absentee ballots," he said. "We will make sure their registrations are processed at the Board of Election."

Another activist-organizer was Bob Christ, who was wearing a "faith vote" tee shirt. He was bringing people from homeless shelters. Christ said he had made several trips to homeless shelters on Tuesday morning.

"Our job is just to bring them down," he said. "We don’t discuss politics. That is up to them. If they have question, we try to answer them. Most of them have their own ideas."

Matthew Damschroder, the Deputy Director of the Franklin County Board of Election, said he expected 500 people to vote on Tuesday. By the close of voting Tuesday, he said 808 people had voted, including 72 first-time voters and 98 people who needed to update their voter registration information with their current address.

According to volunteers stationed at the early voting location all day, none of the groups ferrying eligible voters appeared to be bringing supporters of Republican nominee John McCain, even though the GOP presidential candidate and his running mate, Sarah Palin, had a rally in the Columbus suburb of Bexley on Monday.

Damschroder said the county mailed 131,000 absentee ballots out on Tuesday, with another 11,000 yet to be sent out. He said that nearly 200,000 new voters had registered since January 2008, of which 5,000 voter registration forms had been rejected due to incorrectly entered information or unreadable handwriting. He said the county sent postcards to those voters, telling them to correct their voter applications before registration closes on Monday, Oct. 6th for the presidential election.

Damschroder said a 2.5 percent error rate among voter registration applications was normal.

During Tuesday’s early voting in Franklin County there appeared to be few problems. One exception was Routing Zhan, the Columbus State Community College student.

"They didn’t allow me to vote because I live in Delaware County and I have to vote near my area -- I am in a different county," she said, as she walked away from the voting center. "I would fell a lot better if I could do it here."

But Zhan said she would not be deterred from voting for president in 2008. "I'm going to go to Delaware County early voting and see if I can cast my vote," she said.

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