COLUMBUS — Voting and civil rights advocates today sued in federal court to block a new state law that sliced a week off early voting as well as a secretary-of-state directive limiting voting hours.
If the lawsuit is successful, it would again put decisions on setting hours for in-person early voting in the hands of 88 county boards of elections. Many of those four-member boards deadlocked 2-2 on early voting schedules in 2012, ultimately making Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted the tie-breaker.
“I can’t speculate on what we may do,” Sean Young, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union National Voting Rights Project, said when asked if they would intervene later at the county level.
The suit against the GOP-passed bill was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus by the voting rights project, the ACLU of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and several African American churches.
House Bill 238, set to affect in time for the Nov. 4 general election, would kill the so-called “Golden Week,” the first six days of early voting that overlap with the last week of registration. That allows a would-be voter to register and then cast an absentee ballot on the spot that would be later counted once the voter’s eligibility checks out.
The suit contends that reducing the number of days in which people may cast absentee ballots by mail or in person from 35 to 29 would unconstitutionally and disproportionately affect African Americans, the elderly, students, and urban voters who have statistically been more likely to take advantage of early voting. In the 2012 presidential election, 157,000 in-person early votes were cast on the days that would be eliminated by the law and the follow-up directive.
The churches say that the reduction in voting days, particularly the loss of Sunday voting in this gubernatorial election year, will hurt their “Souls to the Polls” effort in which congregants are transported directly from Sunday services to voting stations.
“As far as we’re concerned, politics regarding early voting are irrelevant,” said Carrie Davis, League executive director. “The principle of this case transcends party politics…Realistic and fair access to the ballot will always ensure a healthy democracy, which is a goal we all share…No election strategy should make it harder to vote.”
Mr. Husted’s office said that, even with the changes, Ohioans have more voting options than in most states. He has already committed to mass-mailing applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters for this year’s election, using federal funds.
At one point Democrats and Republicans had been on the same page about eliminating Golden Week, which was inadvertently created by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2005 in its rush to create no-fault absentee voting to undermine the chances of a voting-reform and redistricting package on the ballot that year.
The end of Golden Week, during which a voter can register and also vote, was also recommended by a bipartisan report of county elections officials.
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