Vying for the Vote
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
It was a day that would go down in Kenyon history.
On a cold, rainy Wednesday at 3:56 a.m., Gambier residents cast the final votes in an election that made Kenyon — briefly — famous nationwide. It was Nov. 3, 2004, and some Kenyon students could claim the dubious honor of having waited upwards of 11 hours to cast their ballots at the last polling station in the country to close. The Knox County Board of Elections had provided two voting machines to serve the 1,607 registered voters of Gambier Village precinct. Each machine was able to accommodate 45 voters an hour — meaning it would take around 18 hours for everyone to vote.
Thanks to 2005’s Substitute House Bill 243, which legalized early voting, it’s unlikely history will repeat itself when Gambier voters go to the polls this year.
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia now allow “no-fault” or “no-excuse” voting, meaning everyone can vote early, even if they are also able to vote on Election Day. Ohio is among them. Seven other states allow early voting with a valid excuse — for those who will be away or have unavoidable work commitments or religious obligations that prevent them from going to the polls on Election Day.
In the years since the 2004 election, early voting has become a prominent subject of national debate and scrutiny, especially in swing states like Ohio. And there is no doubt that the practice is on the rise. In 2008, 29.7 percent of votes counted in Ohio were cast early.
This year, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is encouraging early voting as a way to prevent long Election Day lines and machine glitches like those Gambier experienced in 2004. Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign has fought against early voting in several states, saying it can lead to election fraud, although a study conducted by the News21 Voting Rights Project — a Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — showed that since 2000, fraudulent ballots only accounted for 0.000003 percent of total votes cast.
Ohio is on the front lines of the early voting debate. The Obama campaign sued the state in September to prevent early voting from being curtailed on the three days leading up to Election Day. Romney argued the suit was an attempt to restrict military voting rights — members of the military were to be allowed to vote on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day, but not the general public — while Obama portrayed the lawsuit as a push for equal voting access. A federal appeals court sided with the Obama campaign on Oct. 5, 2012 and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the decision on Tuesday, Oct. 16.
Despite partisan concerns, early voting can be beneficial on a local level, according to Tommy Brown ’13. Brown spent a year between high school and college working for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Really, the true quintessential reason why I think [early voting] is a good idea is Election Day lines get long,” Brown said. “Kenyon College students voting beforehand is important so that the 20-something-year-old mother who lives in Gambier Township doesn’t have to wait for hours to vote.”
Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann has a different view of early voting’s purpose. “For most people, there’s nothing wrong with voting on Election Day and making sure you’ve seen both of the candidates and you’ve thought it through,” he said. He emphasized early voting should be mainly available for those who can’t physically make it to the polls on Election Day.
Obama’s national campaign has encouraged everyone to vote early, as have the Kenyon College Democrats.
Sarah Marnell ’13, president of the Kenyon Democrats, said the group received at least 800 registration forms in September and October and signed 122 people up to vote early. On Oct. 9, the last day voters could register in Ohio, the Kenyon Democrats drove 94 students to the polls.
“I think it’s really important that students feel like they have a right to vote here,” Marnell said. “I don’t think you can really consider yourself a part of a community if you’re not willing to vote in it.”
James Dennin ’13 made his own contribution to the get-out-the-vote effort with a party called “Ale to the Chief: A Bipartisan Bash” on Saturday, Oct. 6 that aimed to register even more voters and sign them up to vote early.
Dennin said he had the idea for the party early in the semester. “I thought it was a nice sort of sentiment, a way to just celebrate what we do have in common, which is the fact that voting is part of being a good citizen,” he said. Workers at the party registered about 25 voters. AGORA, Alpha Delta Phi, the Kenyon Democrats, the Kenyon Republicans, The Kenyon Observer, Beer and Sex and the Project for Open Voices co-sponsored the event.
Despite the fact that the Kenyon Democrats have been more active in signing students up to early vote than the Kenyon Republicans, Marnell doesn’t think early voting helps one party over another. “It helps both parties, I would say, equally,” she said. “[The Kenyon Republicans] are pushing more [mail-in] absentee voting, which does make sense. Most students who go here are fairly liberal, so they’re going to vote Democrat in a swing state, which [the Republicans] don’t want.”
Andrew Gabel ’15, secretary for the Kenyon College Republicans, said the group’s efforts at Kenyon have been mainly about reaching out to the larger community and canvassing in Mount Vernon, because “Kenyon is probably about 80 to 90 percent Democrat.” But he said the Romney campaign in Ohio has adopted many of the grassroots strategies Obama popularized in 2008. “We’ve knocked on over a million doors already, [and made] over four million phone calls just in Ohio alone,” he said. “In the context of early voting, there’s renewed emphasis to get people out. That’s really what we’re starting to emphasize more. … I think that the level of early voting is going to be unprecedented in this election.”