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One of the most promising recent trends in expanding political participation has been allowing people to vote in the weeks before Election Day, either in person or by mail. Early voting, which enables people to skip long lines and vote at more convenient times, has been increasingly popular over the last 15 years. It skyrocketed to a third of the vote in 2008, rising particularly in the South and among black voters supporting Barack Obama.

And that, of course, is why Republican lawmakers in the South are trying desperately to cut it back. Two states in the region have already reduced early-voting periods, and lawmakers in others are considering doing so. It is the latest element of a well-coordinated effort by Republican state legislators across the country to disenfranchise voters who tend to support Democrats, particularly minorities and young people.

The biggest part of that effort, imposing cumbersome requirements that voters have a government ID, has been painted as a response to voter fraud, an essentially nonexistent problem. But Republican lawmakers also have taken a good look at voting patterns, realized that early voting might have played a role in Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory, and now want to reduce that possibility in 2012.

Mr. Obama won North Carolina, for example, by less than 15,000 votes. That state has had early voting since 2000, and in 2008, more ballots were cast before Election Day than on it. Mr. Obama won those early votes by a comfortable margin. So it is no coincidence that the North Carolina House passed a measure — along party lines — that would cut the early voting period by a week, reducing it to a week and a half before the election. The Senate is preparing a similar bill, which we hope Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, will veto if it reaches her.

Republicans said the measure would save money, a claim as phony as saying widespread fraud necessitates ID cards. The North Carolina elections board, and many county boards, said it would actually cost more money, because they would have to open more voting sites and have less flexibility allocating staff members. Black lawmakers called it what it is: a modern whiff of Jim Crow.

More than half of the state’s black votes were cast before Election Day, compared with 40 percent of the white votes. A similar trend was evident elsewhere in the South, according to studies by the Early Voting Information Center, a nonpartisan academic center at Reed College in Oregon. Blacks voting early in the South jumped from about 13 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2008, according to the studies, significantly outpacing the percentage of whites.

One of the biggest jumps was in Georgia, where, over the objections of several black lawmakers, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill in April that would cut back in-person early voting to 21 days, from 45 days. Florida just cut its early voting period to eight days, from 14. Florida also eliminated the Sunday before Election Day as an early-voting day; election experts note that will eliminate the practice of many African-Americans of voting directly after going to church.

Outside the region, the Republican-dominated Legislature in Ohio, a perennial battleground state, is about to restrict early voting, a move that Democrats say amounts to voter suppression and discrimination.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia now allow some form of early voting, a relic from the days when everyone seemed to agree that more voters were better for democracy. Republicans have recently decided that a larger electorate can hurt them. crow&st=cse
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