COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is helping activists in the battleground state of Ohio challenge an election law that would shorten the time for early voting, which helped Obama in his first run for the White House.
Opponents must gather roughly 231,000 valid signatures before the law's effective date Friday in order to block it from being in place until after the presidential election next year. That election would be the earliest chance voters would have to weigh in on whether the overhaul should be tossed out.
Democrats, including the president's campaign, are trying to protect a method of voting they see as a boon for their party.
"At a time when we should be expanding the number of people voting, there are some in Ohio trying to shrink it. It's pure politics," wrote Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director, in an email to supporters urging them to sign and help circulate petitions.
Even without the Obama campaign's help, getting the signatures needed for a ballot referendum in Ohio might not be much of a challenge for opponents of the elections overhaul, which also include Democratic lawmakers, liberal groups, the state's Democratic Party and minority organizations. They are using a volunteer structure in place from an earlier signature drive, when groups gathered almost four times the needed signatures to put a proposed repeal of Ohio's new collective bargaining law on the November ballot.
Volunteers in that effort recently collected more than 10,000 signatures in one day, said Greg Schultz, Obama's state director in Ohio, in a recent campaign email.
About 30 percent of Ohio's total vote — or roughly 1.7 million ballots — came in ahead of Election Day in 2008. Ohio is one of 32 states that allow voters to cast an early ballot by mail or in person without an excuse.
Ohio doesn't track its early voters by party, so the stats don't show exactly how much Obama might have benefited from early voting in the state. But both parties are sure he did.
Some county data gives a glimpse of how the early vote split among those who registered in a party. In the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga County around Cleveland, roughly four times more Democrats than Republicans mailed in their ballots. While Republicans held an early voting edge in the GOP territory of Hamilton County, more than six times the number of Democrats than Republicans voted early in person in the county that's home to Cincinnati.
An extended voting period is perceived as benefiting Democrats because it increases opportunities for Hispanics, blacks, new citizens and poor people — harder to reach for an Election Day turnout — to vote.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said that if the elections law isn't blocked, "it makes re-electing President Obama very difficult."
"Voters work for a living," Redfern said. "If they are going to vote early, they need to be able to do it at a time when it's convenient for them — not at a time when it's convenient for the secretary of state."
As a candidate, Obama encouraged voters in speeches, emails and a website to take advantage of early voting. His 2008 campaign placed ads inside 18 video games, including the popular "Guitar Hero" and "Madden NFL 09."
Ohio's election measure cleared the Republican-controlled state Legislature in late June with no Democratic support.
Among other changes, the overhaul shortens the in-person early voting window from 35 days before Election Day to 17 days and the period for absentee voting by mail from 35 days to 21. The cuts effectively eliminate a five-day period during which new voters could both register and cast a ballot on the same day.
Ohio's new law, which is not yet in effect, allows people to vote in person on Saturdays but not Sundays. And it specifies that poll workers may — but aren't required to — tell voters if they are in the wrong precinct.
The state's top elections chief, Jon Husted, has argued that each of the state's 88 counties should have the same early voting hours and be open on the same days. Husted and his fellow Republicans contend it's unfair that a voter in one county can cast an early ballot on a day when a voter in a neighboring county cannot.
"It's nice to use the GOP as a boogeyman in terms of voter suppression and the like, but by their actions they (opponents) are impeding uniformity and accessibility," Ohio Republican Party chairman Kevin DeWine said in an interview.
Ohio's overhaul also bans local boards of elections from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot requests to voters, but Husted has agreed to send the requests to voters in all counties in 2012. Boards in Ohio's larger, urban counties — those that tend to vote more Democratic — have typically made such solicitations.
Other GOP-led legislatures in the swing states of Florida and Wisconsin have rolled back early voting periods, though Obama's campaign hasn't sponsored similar activity or gotten as involved in those states compared with Ohio.
Florida rolled back its early voting time to one week from two in an overhaul that also makes it more difficult for groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Boy Scouts of America to conduct voter registration drives. Those parts of the law await a decision by a federal court, whose approval is required under the U.S. Voting Rights Act because of past discrimination in several Florida counties.
Obama won the advance vote decisively enough to take Florida in 2008, despite losing the Election Day vote to Republican John McCain.
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