Swing State Sorrows: The Price of a Vote That Matters

FILE - This Oct. 30, 2012 file photo shows people voting early at the Salt Lake County Government Building in Salt Lake City,
FILE - This Oct. 30, 2012 file photo shows people voting early at the Salt Lake County Government Building in Salt Lake City, ahead of the Nov. 6 election. There’s always grousing about people who don’t bother to vote. But look at it another way: An estimated 133 million Americans will cast ballots in Tuesday’s election. That’s about 6 in 10 eligible adults. Some will persevere despite long lines, pressing personal burdens or the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. Why do they do it? It’s not because any one voter will decide the contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Depending on which state they live in, the odds of casting a deciding vote for president are somewhere between 1 in a million and essentially zero. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

We hear it time and again, enviously, bitterly, admiringly, coaxingly. It may be our sole characteristic that induces jealousy among our compatriots. It entices the world's most powerful men to court us. Observers from Beijing to Benghazi eye us intently; from New York to California they unabashedly ogle us. We are awash -- maybe drowning -- in the money of millionaires. Here in Ohio, our votes matter.

By November 7, we will have determined the course of the domestic and foreign policies of a global superpower. Very soon thereafter all will forget us, and then in four years wonder again why we are so fickle. In the meantime, we will be left to attend to our wounds. Maybe we will mend them, but probably they will fester. All that is certain is that no entity could be so torn and embattled without suffering critical damage.

Politics in Ohio have long been contentious; the economy has been in decline for decades. Our swing state status amplifies and agitates these internal experiences. The recently concluded (for now) battle over early voting exemplifies the struggles. As I wrote here before, the Republican state administration, with Secretary of State Jon Husted at its helm, has been on a crusade to restrict early voting. In an act of "overt discrimination," Husted attempted to limit early voting hours in counties that voted Democratic in 2008. Public outrage over such blatant disenfranchisement efforts pushed Husted to restrict hours across all counties instead.

The Obama campaign, the Democratic National Party, and the Ohio Democratic Party took Husted to court, and won. The U.S. District Court ruled in their favor and ordered Husted to keep the polls open during extended hours, including the weekend before the election. Husted appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court, and lost again. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nine declined to hear it. The polls will stay open.

Yet getting to that outcome brought a menacing discourse to the surface. A Republican state official made implicitly discriminatory efforts explicit, opining that the state need not accommodate "the urban -- read African American -- voter turnout machine." Then billboards started sprouting exclusively in urban neighborhoods and housing developments, warning residents of the grave dangers of voter fraud. While the rest of the state was being implored to vote, impoverished urban voters were being intimidated out of it.

Alas, this election is not about them anyway. It is about another social divider -- class -- and in particular the one in the middle. From one side, we hear that their jobs and livelihoods have been saved from a deeper depression. They point to Ohio's economic figures, with lower unemployment than the national average, and speak of recovery and growth. But the other side paints a much darker picture. They say our growth might look good but it is not; our future, they say, will be even gloomier. Ohioans cannot be allowed to agree upon, let alone enjoy, their paltry economic recovery.

Our elected leaders spar on national television while more outsider money funds our Senate race than any other in the country. The advertisements, up to 400 per day, clog our airwaves with negativity. And oh how the phones ring!

Even if you have registered the struggle for Ohio, you do not see the daily battles, citizen vs citizen. Last week as I chatted with folks casting their votes early in Akron, I had to resist being ensnared in one of these nasty clashes. As a middle-aged white woman entered the polling place, a volunteer from the party, it turns out, is not her own, offered her a "sample ballot." He crossed the Rubicon. She unsheathed her most caustic words and blasted him as she shook with anger. I posited that he was harmless and encouraged her to carry on explaining to me why she was voting early. She did so, seething all the while.

I've seen a lot of acrimony among the people of this otherwise truly friendly Midwestern state. In at least one instance, Tea Party followers rallied in downtown Cleveland literally declaring "War," (an adoption of Andrew Breitbart's discourse). One volunteer, an elderly woman with a sweet demeanor, explained to me, very gently, "November is going to be do or die." I raised my eyes from my notebook and met hers, engulfed in wrinkles that turned upwards as she smiled; she was enjoying this.

What forces have caused such bitterness? What forces will quell them? We have real problems to solve and challenges to face. We might even have an economic recovery to enjoy. But instead our political energies are spent on a battlefield with the whole nation in attendance. This begs the question: What is more valuable: a vote that matters, or the health of our body politic?

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