COLUMBUS — If Ohio’s early voting law is unconstitutional, then so are the voting systems of the majority of states in the nation with weaker laws, backers of efforts to reduce in-person early-voting opportunities told a federal judge Monday.
But voting-rights advocates argued that a new state law passed by Republican lawmakers and a directive issued by GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted infringe on an early-voting right that Ohioans, particularly low-income and minority citizens, have increasingly relied on.
“Defendants don’t even dispute that Sunday voting is an African-American phenomenon …,” Sean Young of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project told U.S. District Judge Peter Economus. “One Sunday afternoon isn’t enough to conduct all of these Souls to Polls activities.”
The League of Women Voters of Ohio, NAACP, and several African-American churches sued to reinstate weekend and evening early-voting hours that voters used during the 2012 presidential election. They’re also seeking to restore “Golden Week,” the overlap between the prior 35-day absentee/early voting window and the 30-day registration deadline when a would-be voter could register and cast an absentee ballot on the spot.
The judge did not immediately rule.
Golden Week was eliminated by Senate Bill 238. Mr. Husted, also a Republican, then issued a directive setting statewide hours for the remaining 28 to 29 days of in-person early voting under that law. The directive largely limited in-person voting to weekday business hours, two Saturdays, and one Sunday.
“Ohioans can vote entirely by mail without ever going to the ballot box, without ever going to the board of elections,” Assistant Attorney General Steven Voigt said, referring to mail-in absentee ballots.
Judge Economus recently ordered the state to permanently restore early voting on the three days immediately preceding the election. An estimated 157,000 Ohioans cast ballots during those three days and during Golden Week before the 2012 general election
But he drew distinctions between the two cases.
“The remedy is different here than the remedy required in Obama for America. … It’s a different animal,” he said, noting the difference in expected turnout for the 2014 gubernatorial election compared with the 2012 presidential election.
“Be fair to all Ohio voters,” Judge Economus said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The lawsuit contends that Senate Bill 238 and Mr. Husted’s directive together disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters. African-American churches in recent years have bused their congregations to the polls after Sunday services to vote early, but Mr. Husted’s directive provides for early voting only for a few hours on the last Sunday afternoon before the election.
“It’s only because of your honor that we got one Sunday back,” Mr. Young told Judge Economus.
Assistant Attorney General Kris Armstrong noted that if the judge were to strike down the law, it could have the effect of having 88 individual counties setting a hodge-podge of early voting schedules statewide.
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