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ELECTION PROCEDURES

Feds to join challenge of Ohio law

Legality of early voting limitations questioned

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    Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted speaks to elections officials from the area as part of the 2014 Ohio Elections Officials Summer Regional Meetings at the Bowen-Thompson Student Union at BGSU on June 26, 2014.

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COLUMBUS — The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Tuesday that it plans to get involved in a federal lawsuit challenging Ohio’s Republican-passed law narrowing the window for early voting before the election.

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A hearing is set for Aug. 11 in U.S. District Court in Columbus on a potential preliminary injunction that would restore early voting days and hours for the Nov. 4 election to where they were for the 2012 presidential election. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the NAACP, and several African-American ministers.

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“We have already filed suit in Texas and North Carolina. I expect that we are going to be filing in cases that are already in existence in Wisconsin as well as in Ohio,” Attorney General Eric Holder said during an unaired portion of a weekend interview with ABC News, the Obama Administration confirmed.

Exactly what form the Justice Department’s involvement will take remains unclear. ACLU Ohio spokesman Mike Brickner said the organization had not been notified of the administration’s plans to step in, nor has anything been filed yet with the court.

The Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly recently asked the Department of Justice to intervene in the case to defend its Senate Bill 238. The law, signed by GOP Gov. John Kasich, shaved six days from the early voting schedule for the Nov. 4 election and subsequent elections.

The move eliminated the so-called “Golden Week,” the overlap in the 35-day pre-election early voting window and the 30-day registration deadline during which a would-be voter could register and immediately cast an absentee ballot.

The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Peter Economus, the same judge who recently ordered the state to permanently restore early voting on the three days immediately preceding the election. Some 157,000 Ohioans cast ballots during those three days and Golden Week in 2012.

The 2012 case had been initiated by President Obama’s re-election campaign and fellow Democrats.

In addition to restoring Golden Week, the plaintiffs in the latest case asked the court to restore pre-existing early voting hours in the wake of Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted’s directives. Those directives largely limit in-person early voting to weekday business hours, two Saturdays, and a Sunday.

The lawsuit contends that reducing early voting from 35 to 29 days before the election would disproportionately affect minority, urban, elderly, and student voters who’ve been statistically more likely to take advantage of it.

Cuyahoga County has filed a brief with the court in support of the lawsuit. Its executive, Ed FitzGerald, is the Democratic challenger to Mr. Kasich in November.

Mr. Husted and fellow defendant Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine dismissed suggestions that Senate Bill 238 is unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act by discriminating against African-American voters.

“The Secretary of State is mailing every registered voter in the state of Ohio an application for an absentee ballot, helping facilitate any voter who wishes to vote from his or her own home,” they said in their response to the lawsuit.

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

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