Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Equal ballot access

Ohio Republican leaders are challenging two proper court decisions that affect how the state will conduct elections this fall. The GOP would do better, on behalf of voters, to accept the rulings and agree to expand ballot access, rather than appear to pursue partisan advantage by restricting access.

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A federal judge ruled last week that Ohio must permit in-person early voting on the three days before the Nov. 6 election -- an opportunity that was available in previous elections. President Obama's re-election campaign sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted to overturn a GOP-passed state law that now prohibits early voting during those days.

Senior U.S. District Judge Peter Economus, an appointee of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, ruled that restoring in-person voting on those days "places all Ohio voters on equal standing." Republican State Attorney General Mike DeWine is appealing the decision, arguing that "states should have the right to set the hours of election and the time of election."

Four years ago, 93,000 Ohioans voted in person during the three days before Election Day. Voting-rights advocates say a similar number would do so this year, given the opportunity.

A recent directive by Mr. Husted prohibits in-person early voting on weekends. But federal law still would have permitted military personnel and their families to vote in person on the three days before Election Day.

Republicans offered the red-herring argument that the Obama campaign's suit would disfranchise those voters. But the judge correctly said the only impediment is Mr. Husted's "failure to set uniform hours" for early voting on the final three days that would cover all voters.

Advocates noted that much of the early voting on those days in 2008 occurred in urban counties, including Lucas County, where Mr. Obama did well. They say that minority and poor voters, who tend to favor Democratic candidates, are especially likely to vote in person on those days.

Some county boards of elections complain that forcing them to conduct last-minute early voting would make it harder for them to get ready for Election Day. But a protracted court fight will impede such preparations as well. Mr. Husted and Mr. DeWine would help local boards more by working with them now to accommodate expanded in-person early voting.

Also last week, another federal judge, Clinton appointee Algenon Marbley, ordered Mr. Husted to direct county boards of election to count otherwise valid ballots cast by voters improperly sent to the wrong precinct by poll workers.

State law requires such ballots to be treated as provisional. In 2008, more than 14,000 ballots were discarded statewide because they were cast in the wrong precinct at a polling place that served multiple precincts. Many of these ballots were the products of poll workers' error.

Mr. Husted is expected to appeal the ruling, arguing that the ballot policy is not discriminatory because it applies statewide. But polling places with multiple precincts are especially prevalent in urban areas, and may affect a disproportionate number of Democratic voters.

Mr. Husted deserves Ohioans' appreciation for ensuring that every voter will get an application to vote by absentee ballot this year. He also has made it easier for voters to update their addresses and other information online, to reduce the incidence of provisional ballots.

But given the stakes in this year's election -- Ohio could determine the next president -- he and other Republican leaders also should commit themselves to broadening access to in-person early voting. That means conducting such voting during weekend and evening hours, right up to Election Day.

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