Ohio: The Longest Election Day Has Begun (Updated, with Pass of the Hat)
By Al Giordano
"I have a vested interest; children and grandchildren," explained Michael Reese, driving the Obama shuttle in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday morning. His poster-festooned SUV had already transported 25 Ohio State University students other Obama supporters to cast early ballots at the Veterans Memorial Park Amphitheater downtown on Tuesday morning, and returned them to the corner of 17 Street and North High, where volunteers in an Obama campaign office queued up the next group.
It was only the First of October - five weeks before "election day" - but in Ohio, the voting had begun.
"I think the Obama campaign has successfully sold the idea that this is the most important election of our lifetime," Reese - former political action director for the Ohio NAACP - told The Field, after letting your reporter ride shotgun along the way. We pulled up to the pick-up site where two youths - one, an OSU student and part-time campus policeman, the other a neighborhood kid - are waiting to be taken to vote, along with a Japanese film crew who also hop aboard to film the ride.
At the early voting site - there's one in each of Ohio's 88 counties - a steady trickle of voters arrived, mostly without assistance from any campaign, to cast early votes now allowed under Ohio law. An unregistered voter could sign up right there; with an address in the county (which will be verified by mail), a form of ID, or simply by writing the last four digits of her Social Security number on the application. In the two-step process, once registered, the voter fills out an application for an "absentee ballot" - no reason needs to be given - and is handed a long two-page ballot for national and local officers and state ballot questions. It all goes quickly and efficiently: there are 58 booths waiting for the voters to fill out their paper ballots.
The crowd here in Columbus is - according to an unscientific survey taken by The Field as they exit from voting - overwhelmingly Obama country; nineteen voters told me they had voted for Obama, and just one - a middle aged white man in a tie - wouldn't say ("I voted for the one who will win," is all he said). There were various Obama vans coming in and out of the parking lot, dropping off voters, and none visible for McCain on this second day of early voting.
Ben Piscitelli, public information officer for the county Board of Elections, told The Field that on September 30, the first day of early voting, 808 Franklin County residents had voted in Columbus, 72 of those which registered to vote on the same day.
Since Franklin County represents roughly ten percent of the population in Ohio, let's multiply those numbers by ten: that could mean more than 8,000 early ballots cast on the first day out of 36 Election Days between now and November 4: and about 720 of them could be newly registered voters. The door slams on new voters next Monday, October 6, and the race is on to find them, scoop them up, and get them registered and voting in these final days before the deadline.
The contest in Ohio, according to polls, is extremely close. Survey USA (one of the pollsters we find most accurate) polled on September 28 and 29, and found McCain ahead by one point: 49 percent to Obama's 48.
The two candidates are in a virtual tie among Independent voters (Obama 48 percent, McCain 46), efforts to persuade voters are mostly over: very few haven't already decided. And so it is a turnout war, plain and simple, in this swingest of swing states with a whopping 20 Electoral Votes.
Republicans had sued to stop the one-step register-and-vote process that is new to Ohio elections, but were rebuked by the courts last week.
And so in Ohio, it's game on. It's already Election Day. And every day is Election Day through November 4.
From the ground here in Ohio, it feels like winter in New Hampshire or Iowa every four years. A volunteer, hearing me introduced as "a reporter from New York" comes up to introduce himself as a fellow New Yorker that came to Columbus to help get out the vote. Bruce Springsteen will come to OSU and give a free acoustic concert on campus for Obama on Sunday. TV personalities Seth McFarlane (creator of "Family Guy") and Adrianne Palacki (star of "Friday Night Lights") return to their birthplace of Toledo today to campaign as hometown kids made good for Obama. DNC chairman Howard Dean's mother is up in Youngstown with a team of out of state volunteers, while Teamsters Union president Jim Hoffa led a truck caravan through the state - yesterday they were in Cincinnati and Dayton - to fire up the members (see video of Hoffa's pitch at one workplace, here). It's a full court press to register every last eligible voter by Monday and get them to vote early.
A group called the Vote Today Ohio PAC is rounding up the homeless at shelters and soup kitchens and bringing them to register and vote. Right-wing toadies like John Fund of the Wall Street Journal are feigning outrage over the idea that homeless folks can vote, transparently queuing up false charges of "fraud" in case Ohio rejects McCain and to blunt outrage over GOP voter suppression tactics in Florida and elsewhere. (To argue that a homeless person shouldn't be able to vote seems, to this writer, the ultimate in cretinism; especially given that current economic policies have led to tens of thousands of home mortgage foreclosures here in Ohio.)
Despite the frenzy of activity and the Obama campaign's visible advantage in the early voting lines, there are some causes for pause, too.
The in-person early voting is going to be dwarfed by absentee voting by mail: Hamilton county had received 55,320 mail-in absentee voter requests as of Thursday. Fourteen thousand had come into Fairfield County, and twenty thousand into Butler County (which in all of 2004 had only 16,000 absentee ballots). Those are Republican counties won by Bush in 2004.
And while the steady stream of early voters is clearly - at least in Columbus and Dayton, where The Field inspected the early voting sites - pro-Obama, it can seem a little underwhelming, like "ant's work," as they come to the polls one and two at a time.
Yet in a contest as close as that in Ohio, "ant's work" is what gets the job done. It's hand-to-hand combat out there for every last vote. And it's going to be that way for the next exhausting four-and-a-half weeks. This week - what has been proclaimed as "Golden Week" by the Obama campaign, in which people can register and vote on the same day - appears like it will bring up to 50,000 voters, maybe 5,000 of them new ones, to the polls. (Bush defeated Kerry in Ohio in 2004 by 118,599 votes.)
It's that tight in Ohio.
It will not shock your correspondent at all if those 20 Electoral Votes come down to just one person's vote.
Update: Don't miss Katie Halper's hilarious review of last night's VP debate, below this post!
I'm sitting in Michigan State University's Union Hall eavesdropping on a training for students who will be fanning out to register voters at the annual Homecoming Parade (and subsequent bar crawl) tonight, the latter of which I'll be especially sorry to miss because...
Tonight I'll get back on the highway and get as far south as I can en route to North Carolina, where I'll be reporting from Obama's newly announced appearance in the mountains of Asheville on Sunday afternoon. I'll be mainly on the road all day Saturday to be able to get there on time. From somewhere in Carolina I'll file my Michigan report (impressive stuff in a state that remains fired up and ready to go).
Meanwhile, the addition of North Carolina onto our reporting itinerary is definitely busting the budget we had raised for Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, so please, if you can, drop a coin or two into the cup, and let's see if by the time I trek these 700 miles and get there on Sunday we raise another $1,500. I'll let you know (so far you always have). Thanks (and later I'll report to you, also, on the great Field Hands we've met along the road).
Update II: The Fox News interview with Palin - in which she's asked about the McCain campaign's pulling out of Michigan - is a doggone hoot (wink, wink). She says:
"I read that this mornin' also, I fired off a quick email and said, ‘oh, come on. Do we have to? Do we have to call it there?' Todd and I, we'd be happy to get to Michigan and walk through those plants of the car manufacturers. We'd be so happy to get to speak with the people there in Michigan who are hurtin' because the economy is hurtin'. Whatever we can do, and whatever Todd and I can do in realizing what their challenges in that state are, as we can relate to them and connect with them and promise them that we won't let them down in the administration. I wanna get back to Michigan and I wanna try."
Okay, I'll bite: Since McCain himself famously doesn't know how to use email, just to whom exactly is she sending the email? Or does part of her job as running mate include receiving her own email on McCain's behalf? Does she then tell him, "John, you got an email this morning! It was from me! Here's what it said!"
And I love the suggestion that if only "Todd and I" could sit around the kitchen table with the entire population of Michigan she could somehow accomplish what McCain and she, together, didn't accomplish in Grand Rapids when they visited there early last month. Read between the lines, and she's kind of backhand slapping McCain as out of touch with the workin' folk (wink), ya know?