Monday, May 21, 2018
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Not so early

Ohio’s broad early-voting choices don’t justify limiting in-person voting in a potentially biased way

Ohio boasts of having one of the best systems of early voting in the nation, and it does. But the state’s Republican leaders and their allies, from the Statehouse to the U.S. Supreme Court, evidently don’t want the system to be too good, if that means making it more convenient for Ohioans who might prefer to vote for Democratic candidates.

Just hours before in-person early voting was set to start yesterday across Ohio, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Monday to issue an order effectively postponing the start of that voting until next Tuesday, four weeks before Election Day. The order upholds abolition of the “golden week” that formerly allowed Ohioans to register to vote and to vote early at the same time; two years ago, 59,000 people voted during Golden Week.

The five justices who supported the order all were appointed by Republican presidents. The four justices who opposed it were named by Democrats.

Academic studies repeatedly have shown that Ohioans who vote early are more likely to be poor, African-American, and/​or homeless. Members of these groups tend to vote Democratic.

This year, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed and GOP Gov. John Kasich signed a law that limits in-person early voting. Sponsors cited the threat of voter “fraud” during Golden Week that they could not document.

GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a voting schedule, including restrictions on evening and weekend hours, that reflected the new law’s provisions. Ohio chapters of the NAACP, League of Women Voters, and American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in federal court, and the U.S. Justice Department took their side. Mr. Husted and Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine defended the law.

A federal judge in Columbus, Peter Economus, blocked the new law’s elimination of Golden Week, and a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld that ruling. This week’s Supreme Court order stays the judge’s ruling while the state pursues an appeal.

Judge Economus noted in his ruling that “a greater proportion of blacks not only cast [early] ballots than whites but do so on early voting days that have been eliminated” by the voting schedule that responds to the new law. Many black churches conduct “souls to the polls” events that transport members of their congregations to early voting sites after Sunday services.

Mr. Husted has emphasized imposing “uniformity” in voting statewide, as if the challenges of election administration in a large urban county such as Lucas County were identical to those of the smallest rural county. The new restrictions on early voting tend to create a lowest-common-denominator standard that appears likely to limit access to the ballot in a discriminatory fashion.

Ohio did not develop its extended early-voting period in an act of political altruism; it emerged in response to long lines at polling places on Election Day 2004. The relative generosity of early-voting options does not provide a valid excuse to limit that voting in a way that discriminates against some Ohioans. Yet that is what the new law does.

The 11th-hour Supreme Court ruling has created confusion and hardship among some Ohio voters. The fact that the order was the initial decision of the high court’s new term offers little reason for optimism about what will follow.

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