COLUMBUS -- Secretary of State Jon Husted on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of putting all 88 Ohio counties on the same early voting election schedule, a move met immediately with praise and scorn.
The Republican secretary of state had faced criticism from Democrats for breaking 2-2 ties by boards of elections in several urban counties, including Lucas, in favor of restricting in-person early voting to normal weekday business hours.
Meanwhile, some 21 other counties that had been able to reach agreement on expanded weekday and weekend hours will now have to align their plans to match Mr. Husted's directive. That directive will add some later weeknight voting hours, but no weekends.
"It is easy to vote in Ohio," Mr. Husted said. "You can start voting 35 days in advance by absentee ballot or in person. Every single voter will receive an absentee ballot request, and if they fill that out and turn it in, they will have more than 750 hours to vote without ever leaving their home.
"Ohio's system of elections with this announcement will now be fair and secure and accessible for all, but they will also be uniform," he said. "I think that creates an element of fairness that has been missing from Ohio's election system in the past and has now been restored."
Mr. Husted had stated that Ohio law neither denied nor granted him express authority to issue a directive. He ultimately determined that he did have that authority.
Last year, he supported a Republican-passed bill that set specific hours, but the GOP majority later repealed the law in the face of a Democratic-led voter referendum. That had the effect of allowing the system to revert back to one in which each county board of elections set their own early voting schedules.
Under Ohio law, voters may begin mailing in absentee ballots for the Nov. 6 election or casting them in person at designated sites beginning Oct. 2.
Under Mr. Husted's directive, boards of elections must be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday during the first three weeks of this period, Oct. 2 through Oct. 19, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday during the last two weeks, Oct. 22 through Nov. 2.
The exceptions would be Oct. 8, when offices will be closed for Columbus Day; Oct. 9 when boards must already remain open until 9 p.m. for the voter registration deadline, and Nov. 2 when offices must remain open until 6 p.m., the time under Ohio law when in-person early voting closes for this election for all but military personnel and their families.
These hours are generally longer than the 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. regular hours Monday through Friday that were set in Lucas County when Mr. Husted last week broke a 2-2 partisan deadlock by the board of elections.
"He's meeting both sides halfway," said Jon Stainbrook, county Republican Party chairman and elections board member. "It's fair and the right thing to do. Every county has a uniform same set of hours across the state. That's what leadership encompasses."
Ron Rothenbuhler, the Lucas County Democratic Party chairman and an elections-board member, applauded Mr. Husted's decision.
"Any improvement to provide an opportunity for more hours of availability is great," he said. "I wish we would have included some weekends in there, but it's better to get something rather than nothing."
Even though the new hours are longer than those Mr. Husted had set while breaking ties in Lucas, Cuyahoga, Summit, Hamilton, and Franklin counties, Wednesday's directive still faced Democratic criticism.
State Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) already had a press conference scheduled for today to criticize limited early voting hours before Mr. Husted announced his directive. She said she was "not at all pleased" by the secretary of state's latest decision.
"The big push was for weekends, when people had more time," she said. "While 5 o'clock is certainly better than previously, many people will not be able to get to early voting locations by 5 p.m. There are those who work from 8 to 5; moms who have to pick up children from day care; people who must get transportation, all sorts of things that necessitate citizens needing extra time.
"Quite frankly, I feel people in these powerful positions to make these rules are creating an answer to a problem that does not exist," Ms. Brown said. "I cannot understand why we cannot continue the way we have these last few years."
Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said Mr. Husted reached out to elections officials all over the state.
"I suspect he got a broad array of answers, depending on the size of the county and their financial resources," he said. "I suspect that he did a good job of playing Solomon and splitting the baby as fairly as he could. There are small counties who say they can't afford to be open extra hours and big counties that really want to be open on Saturdays."
The American Civil Liberties Union called Mr. Husted's move a step in the right direction, but it said it still would like to see weekend voting.
"The expansion of absentee and early voting opportunities has led to record voter turnouts while helping to protect against the long lines and allegations of misconduct that have plagued so many of our past elections," spokesman Mike Brickner said.
Mr. Husted's directive does not pertain to Ohio's current restriction of in-person early voting during the last three days before Election Day, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit argued on Wednesday by President Obama's re-election campaign.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.