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The need is great for bell ringers

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JULIE CARR SMYTH

Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Damaging superstorm Sandy jeopardized labor unions’ ambitious get-out-the-vote efforts in blue-collar areas of northeastern Ohio on Tuesday but contributed to record early voting turnout in other parts of the battleground state.

Weather conditions in the state are considered less critical to Republican Mitt Romney than to Democratic President Barack Obama because the GOP has focused more heavily on mail-in ballots than on in-person early voting.

Democratic state Rep. Bob Hagan of Youngstown said Teamsters president James Hoffa advised pressing forward despite the weather, feeling the union’s grassroots efforts couldn’t spare a day or two to wait out the storm.

Hagan said unions have sent out-of-state helpers to the crucial swing state.

“I’m worried about any excuse for people not to participate in our great democracy,” Hagan said. “This election’s very close. We’re talking to a lot of people who don’t need to be converted — Teamsters, labor people. We’re convinced 95 percent of them are voting for Obama, but we need to make sure they don’t decide to stay home.”

Hagan said any storm-related decline in turnout could hurt Obama’s chance of winning Ohio, where the faceoff with Romney is neck-and-neck.

In Franklin County, home to Columbus, a record 4,700 early votes were cast Monday — before the storm made landfall in New Jersey.

Early votes cast in Cuyahoga County — home to Cleveland and Ohio’s largest populations of both Democrats and Republicans — jumped from 1,879 last Thursday to 2,388 on Friday and 2,432 on Monday, according to figures from the Board of Elections. No weekend voting hours were held.

Bettye “Mama” Neal, a 73-year-old Columbus storyteller, braved wind, snow and sleet in Columbus on Tuesday with a foot cast and walker to vote for Obama.

“I’ve got to get out early because it’s not easy for me to move around and my vote’s important to me,” Neal said.

Democrat Don Klco and Republican Fred Stratmann, who jointly manage the Franklin County early voting center, said they didn’t anticipate the storm causing any problems.

“Maybe it will slow the pace a little for a day because it’s pretty nasty out there,” Klco said. “But I don’t think it’s going to affect Ohio.”

“Not Ohioans,” chimed in Stratmann. “They’re used to changing weather. It’s not going to affect their behavior.”

Ohio Republican Party spokesman Matthew Henderson said the state’s 88 county boards of elections all had electricity, making the party confident that people who wanted to vote early wouldn’t be impeded. The GOP says it’s seen a significant increase among Republicans over 2008 in early voting — an option the Obama campaign dominated four years ago.

Early voting began Oct. 2. Secretary of State Jon Husted said more than 1.2 million Ohioans had voted early as of Friday, based on an informal survey of county election boards. That includes 950,000 mail-in ballots — or 72 percent of the 1.3 million requested — and 306,000 in-person early voters.

On Wednesday, Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, both Republicans, planned to ride the Early Vote Express, a bus crisscrossing the state encouraging early votes for Romney and other Republicans.

The bus plans stops in Clark, Union, Franklin and Fayette counties. It’s visited 70 counties so far.

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