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Why early voting is about so much more than convenience

In this Nov. 5, 2012, photo, voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

This was supposed to be "Golden Week" in Ohio, a prime window one month from the midterm election when the state's residents could both register to vote and cast their ballots at the same time. In theory, political participation doesn't get much easier than that.

Monday, however, the Supreme Court halted the start of the state's early voting in another 5-4 order along ideological lines that civil rights advocates fear will harm minority and poor voters in particular. The decision is a win for Republican officials in Ohio who had moved to curtail the state's early voting with a law passed in February. Civil-rights groups including the ACLU and the NAACP had sued the state to block the law, and the Supreme Court's order on Monday sets aside a lower-court ruling in their favor.

Now, as a result, voting in Ohio that was supposed to start today won't begin until Oct. 7. And Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, reacting swiftly to the Supreme Court order, has also rolled back evening hours and a day of Sunday voting that had been required by the earlier court decision.

By Husted's logic, Ohio still remains one of the states with the most expansive early-voting provisions. So why are voting-rights advocates still so concerned? The changes target the very times — evenings, Sundays and well in advance of Election Day — when minorities and the poor (groups more likely to lean Democratic) are often able to vote. These are the times when people who can't leave work during the day may cast ballots. They're the times when churches in black communities lead Sunday "souls to the polls" voting drives.

In 2012, more than 157,000 Ohio voters cast their ballots during the days that have now been eliminated. Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, argued in an analysis conducted in support of suit against the state that blacks have been disproportionately likely to use early balloting in the state, and to vote early on the days that have now been canceled (data in other states suggest the same).

Early voting is intimately bound up in race, not simply because minorities are more likely to take advantage of it, but because the policy itself addresses systemic barriers they face. When we decide to vote, we're not simply making a calculation about whether we like the candidates, or care about the issues at stake, or value the abstract idea of democracy. We also have to make calculations about how to get to the polls, whether we can spare the time to go there, and who will watch the kids while we're gone.

These costs associated with voting — in lost pay, in childcare, in transit fares — are higher for minorities and the poor. Which is why they are among the largest beneficiaries of early, flexible voting.

The reasons for this stem from deep-rooted inequalities that have seemingly little to do with voting. Minorities disproportionately work in non-salaried jobs where they're less likely to receive paid time off to travel to the polls on election day during business hours. An hourly cashier, for instance, has a lot less flexibility in when he or she shows up for work than a salaried businessman.

In Ohio, blacks are four times less likely than whites to own their own car, and they're three times more likely to rely on public transit or walking to get to work. Black adults in the state are twice as likely as whites to be single parents, with particular implications for voting, in the words of Ohio State sociologist Vincent Roscigno:

Racial disparities in both the prevalence of single-headed families and poverty create especially disparate burdens and difficult choices for African American parents wishing to cast an in-person ballot—choices about arranging for childcare, deciding whether one should leave one’s children alone, paying for childcare and/or contemplating whether to bring children to the polling booth. Each represents a cost of voting that African American parents in the state sustain at much higher levels relative to their white counterparts.

Roscigno's point, detailed in a report submitted on behalf of civil rights groups in the Ohio lawsuit, is that access to voting is also about access to transportation, housing, good jobs, stable incomes and education. And to the extent that systemic barriers exist to any of these for minorities and the poor, they have to work that much harder to cast a ballot.

Early voting, in short, isn't merely a matter of convenience. It's a recognition of the fact that many forms of historic discrimination and economic inequality have also, as a downstream consequence, made it harder for minorities to vote.