COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than 1,000 union members marched on the offices of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, Oct. 25, to demand that he protect the rights of 700,000 newly registered Ohio voters threatened by Republican vote suppression tactics in this crucial battleground state.

Georgia Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis electrified a rally following the march. He recounted the story of “Bloody Sunday” when police brutally attacked voting rights marchers in Selma, Ala.

“Thirty-nine years ago, during the Selma to Montgomery march for the right to vote as we crossed the Pettis Bridge, if someone had told me that I’d be here, in Columbus, Ohio, in 2004, on the same issue, I would have told them they’re crazy!” Lewis thundered. “But all across America, the handwriting is on the wall — the people are coming on Nov. 2 … and there’s going to be a change!”

Ohio Reps. Ted Strickland and Stephanie Tubbs Jones and state AFL-CIO President Bill Burga joined Lewis on the stage. “Florida ain’t happening in Ohio,” Tubbs Jones told the rally, promising an all-out fight to protect the right to vote.

Ohio AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Petee Talley estimated that 110,000 provisional ballots would be cast in Ohio. She demanded that they be counted. Blackwell has argued that provisional ballots should be discarded if cast at a polling place other than where the voter is assigned. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld Blackwell’s ruling.

Steelworker (USWA) President Leo Gerard blasted the court. “This is the same panel of three judges who slammed the door on RTI retirees, saying they had ‘no expectation’ of pensions, and the same panel of three judges who, last week, ruled that the Ohio EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] did not have to obey the Clean Air Act. But we say not this time! We are here to protect democracy today and we will be there on Nov. 2!”

Steelworker buses from Aliquippa and Clairton, Pa., rolled into Columbus to defend Ohioans’ right to vote and have their votes counted. The USWA co-sponsored the rally.

Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) member Gertrude Stopka, 71, got up at 4 a.m. to travel from McKeesport, Pa., to Ohio.

“In McKeesport, we had to protest to get a polling place where people could walk,” she told the World. “We won! Get on the bus before sunup to defend their right to vote in Ohio? Damn right I will.”

Panicked by the surge of new voters, the Ohio Republican Party challenged the registrations of 35,000 statewide, 17,000 in Cleveland alone, based solely on claims that postcards sent to them confirming their registration were returned as “undeliverable.” However, a 1993 federal voting rights law stipulates that a person’s right to vote cannot be denied because they moved to a new address.

The GOP has recruited 3,500 operatives, each paid $100, who will be assigned to Ohio’s polling places Nov. 2 in a drive to slow down, harass and intimidate voters.

NAACP President and former City Council President George Forbes told a Cleveland rally, “In the last election, 80 percent of the people challenged at the polls were Black. This is racist to the core. Sending in polling challengers to challenge everybody and everything creates lines and lines. It is a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise Black voters.”

Cleveland City Councilman Nelson Cintron was the featured speaker at a press conference to demand that more Latinos be hired at the Board of Elections and to answer a racist remark by a Board of Elections trainer. Gerardo Colon went to a training session and asked what to do if a voter does not speak English. The trainer, a Republican, said to tell the voter they should learn to speak English before they try to vote. Colon spoke out and the trainer was removed.

Jocelyn Travis, state director of the Ohio Election Protection Coalition, released an Oct. 26 letter to Blackwell demanding that he “take action today to prevent widespread disenfranchisement of Ohio voters.”

She cited news reports that in Franklin County voters have received phone calls from people identifying themselves as election board supervisors, telling them falsely that their polling place has been changed. There are even reports that agents are knocking on doors, telling voters the election will not be held on Nov. 2.

“History tells us that, as we move closer to Election Day, the potential for more such dirty tricks and widespread voter intimidation and suppression will increase exponentially. The right of thousands of Ohio citizens to cast their ballots is at stake,” Travis wrote.

“After the fiasco in Florida in the 2000 elections, the eyes of the world are trained on the election process in the United States … [and] we want to make sure our state shows the world that Ohio is a place where voters can make their voices heard at the ballot box in free and fair elections.”

Travis urged anyone who encounters difficulties at the polls or witnesses any attempt at voter intimidation to call the nationwide toll-free election protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).

The authors can be reached at Tim Wheeler contributed to this here for Spanish text