COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Backers of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing certain voting rights in Ohio said Tuesday they failed to collect enough signatures to make the November ballot, leaving advocates fighting in court for the expanded voting opportunities they seek in the battleground state.
Supporters of the proposed "Ohio Voters Bill of Rights" faced a Wednesday deadline with about 100,000 of the 385,000 signatures they needed to put their question before voters this fall.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, leader of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and a champion of the measure, said the effort was impressive for a campaign given 90 days and "a shoestring budget."
She said supporters plan to keep the issue foremost in voters' minds with a series of activities pegged to the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi that resulted in the deaths of three civil rights workers, and try again for 2015.
"The momentum is still growing and we will not stop until the Voter Bill of Rights is in the Ohio Constitution," she said. "We will continue to educate, circulate, and activate throughout this summer and fall with this new civil rights movement."
The Ohio amendment the coalition favors would guarantee in the state constitution expanded early voting times on weekends that have been the subject of extensive legal and procedural battles and make other changes in election rules that advocates say will ease access to the polls.
The coalition's announcement came a day after the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a motion in a federal lawsuit asking the judge to order restoration of Ohio's so-called golden week, a period when registration and early voting overlapped, and to require Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to set uniform early voting hours for weekday evenings and multiple Sundays.
Majority Republicans passed a law eliminating golden week citing the potential for ineligible voters to cast fraudulent ballots. The Obama campaign had been able to use the window to mobilize throngs of new voters, registering them and shuttling them to the polls often on the same day.
Husted spokesman Matt McClellan said Ohio voters have some of the best access to the polls of any state in the nation, with 28 days of early voting, compared to an average of 19, and a vote-by-mail option that's available 24/7.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the secretary gets sued to create a 25th hour and an eighth day," he said. "Right now, what the voters need is certainty as to what the rules are going to be in November."
Jawanza Karriem Colvin, a Voters Bill of Rights supporter who's pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, said Ohio's status as a political bellwether state makes it a critical battleground on voting rights as well.
"If we can accomplish this, it will inspire groups, organizations, faith communities around the country to rally around this issue and to do what they can in their state to move and change our nation," Colvin said.
The coalition plans to open a permanent Columbus office, expand and promote its website, and host a voting rights summit this fall.
Black lawmakers, clergy and civil rights leaders, including legendary Cleveland pastor Otis Moss Jr., a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., are among the issues supporters. But Bishop Timothy Clarke, pastor of First Church of God in Columbus, said the coalition is nonpartisan and has grown in diversity.
"I think it is telling that today stands before us a marvelous mosaic: clergy, layperson, black, white, male, female, labor, the church, the community," he said. "This is not one person, or one race, or one demographic. This is about the marvelous, what Dr. King called, beloved community."
McClellan said critics are "trying to scare people into thinking it's hard," when they should be spreading the word to Ohioans of all the opportunities they have to vote.
"I don't think by any definition Ohio's voting schedule can be considered voter suppression," he said.