The U.S. Justice Department is supporting a suit that challenges a new state law limiting early voting in Ohio. It might seem a stretch for the Obama Administration to insert itself in state elections policy, but Ohio’s role as a political swing state nationally and past problems with election administration warrant special attention.
Ohio’s elected officials should not make it harder for people to vote. Reducing from 35 to 29 the number of early-voting days before an election, as the new law does starting this fall, is not clear evidence of an intent to suppress the vote by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich. But the law is likely to have a disproportionate impact on groups of Ohioans who tend to vote Democratic.
The lawsuit, brought by the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the NAACP, and several African-American ministers, says the new election law violates the U.S. Constitution. It contends that the new limits on early voting will especially disadvantage minority, urban, elderly, and student voters.
Research shows that in-person early voters in Ohio tend to be minorities and poorer and less educated than voters overall. African-American voters often participate in “souls to the polls” efforts by black churches on the final Sunday before Election Day. Early voters are also more likely to vote Democratic.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has issued a directive limiting in-person early voting to weekday business hours, two Saturdays, and one Sunday. He says this timetable provides “uniformity, bipartisanship, and equality.”
But imposing the same voting rules on large urban counties and small rural ones does not take into account the different challenges these communities face in holding elections. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Husted must account for the failures of some local boards of elections that can’t seem to accommodate voters on Election Day.
But as the state’s chief elections officer, he must ensure that citizens have every reasonable opportunity to vote. It would not be unreasonable, for example, to expand early voting to evenings and the entire weekend before the election.
A federal court hearing is scheduled next month in Columbus on the plaintiffs’ request for an order that would restore early-voting days and hours for the Nov. 4 election to the schedule used in 2012. It would be better if state officials and activists could compromise on their own on early voting. But in the meantime, it’s appropriate for the Justice Department to look for reasonable ways to expand the franchise.