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Published: Saturday, 8/25/2012

Lawsuit seeks to kill early-voting directive

Action challenges Husted's authority to change poll hours

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- A federal lawsuit filed Friday seeks to kill a directive issued by the Republican secretary of state setting uniform early voting hours across 88 counties and to force a ballot referendum on an election reform law that lawmakers later halted.

At issue is whether Secretary of State Jon Husted could later issue an order closing the door to weekend voting hours that was kept open when registered voters automatically placed House Bill 194 on hold by filing enough signatures for a referendum.

"He does not have the authority to make that determination," said Mr. Husted's Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Brunner, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "I risk it to say that I doubt that the Supreme Court or any other court would say that the voters of Ohio don't have the right to the power they reserve to themselves.

"The constitution is the voice of the voters," she said. "If they reserve a power to themselves and do not delegate that power to one of the three branches of government, then one of those branches of government cannot take it away from them."

The suit was filed by the Fair Elections Ohio Committee that was formed to collect signatures to put House Bill 194 on the ballot. Ms. Brunner is a member of that committee.

House Bill 194 was passed in 2011 solely with Republican votes. Among its numerous provisions was language reducing the time windows for casting absentee ballots by mail and in person, setting uniform hours for in-person early voting across the state that included weekday and Saturday morning hours, and prohibiting early voting during the three days immediately preceding the Nov. 6 election.

Mr. Husted certified that opponents of the law, which included President Obama's re-election campaign, had succeeded in gathering enough signatures to place the issue on this year's ballot. But Republican lawmakers then took the unprecedented step of voting to repeal a law while it was subject to referendum.

The lawsuit contends that the successful filing of the signatures placed the law on hold, preserving the status quo of prior law until voters had a chance to weigh in on Nov. 6. Prior law allowed county boards of elections to set their own hours for in-person early voting.

But Mr. Husted contended that the repeal of the law meant there was no longer a law for the referendum to challenge. On Aug. 15, the Ohio Ballot Board, chaired by Mr. Husted, did not place the referendum on the Nov. 6. ballot.

Later the same day, Mr. Husted issued his own directive setting a new uniform set of early voting hours for all 88 counties that included expanded weekday hours but no weekend hours. The now-repealed House Bill 194 would have allowed such voting on Saturdays until noon.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, where a decision in another early voting suit filed by the Obama campaign is pending. The Obama lawsuit seeks to open those final three days before the election to early voting by all registered voters, not just military members and their families as current law holds.

"Democrats filed one lawsuit seeking uniformity, the Obama for American lawsuit, and then filed another against uniformity," said Husted spokesman Matt McClellan. "They're contradicting themselves and grasping at straws while we are focused on making it easy to vote and providing for fair, uniform, and secure elections."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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