COLUMBUS — A federal judge on Thursday threw up a roadblock — at least for the Nov. 4 election — to a new Republican-passed law that partly closed Ohio’s early voting window.
Secretary of State Jon Husted, the Republican serving as Ohio’s top elections official, said the state “must” appeal the decision.
U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus granted a preliminary injunction sought by the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and several African-American churches that restores the full 35 days of early voting for this year’s general election.
He found that the law passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich is likely unconstitutional. The state has argued its absentee voting options were among the most liberal in the nation.
“Despite the fact that individual voters may simply choose to vote at other times during the current early-voting period, the socioeconomic and other factors identified by the plaintiffs coupled with the reductions to [early in-person] voting … result in fewer voting opportunities for African-Americans than other groups of voters, as it will be more difficult for African-Americans to vote during the days and hours currently scheduled than for members of other groups,” wrote Judge Economus, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
The decision restores the so-called golden week, the six-day overlap between the 35-day absentee/early voting window and the 30-day registration deadline. During those six days, a voter may register and instantly cast an absentee ballot to be counted later after the voter’s eligibility checks out.
Senate Bill 238 would have killed the golden week, reducing the early voting window to 28 or 29 days, depending on the calendar.
The case was argued by the American Civil Liberties Union and supported by the Obama Administration. The decision is seen as a victory for Democrats, whose constituents were more successful in 2012 in taking advantage of in-person early voting.
African-American churches engaged in so-called “souls to the polls” efforts by busing congregations directly following Sunday church services to early-voting sites. Students were bused from evening and weekend rallies on college campuses.
In all, an estimated 157,000 Ohioans cast ballots during the final three days before the general election and during golden week in 2012.
Under the ruling, early voting will begin on Sept. 30 and include yet-to-be-determined evening hours for two weeks — Oct. 20-24 and Oct. 27-31. It also provides for voting on Sunday, Oct. 26 in addition to Sunday, Nov. 2 that was already provided under Mr. Husted’s directive.
Judge Economus barred Mr. Husted from interfering in decisions by local boards of elections to set in-person voting hours beyond what will be spelled out in the secretary of state’s directive.
He wrote that the General Assembly has the responsibility of passing legislation consistent with his order, despite the fact that lawmakers are on summer recess and are likely not expected back in Columbus until after the election.
“I have been consistent. This ruling is not,” Mr. Husted said. “During the 2012 election and beyond, this same judge said we had to implement fair and uniform days and hours of operation for elections in Ohio.
“Now he seems to say counties can set their own days and hours of operation.
“Today’s ruling kicks the door open to having different rules for voting in each of Ohio’s 88 counties, which is not fair and uniform and was not even acceptable to this court or the plaintiffs previously,” he said.
“The courts are saying, ‘Don’t try to restrict people’s voting rights’,” said Peg Rosenfeld, elections specialist for the League of Women Voters. “Anybody who’s eligible to vote should be able to vote at a time that fits with their busy schedules. People who work long hours and have child-care responsibilities and who want to vote in person should be able to do that.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern and state Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland), Mr. Husted’s opponent, criticized the secretary of state’s decision to appeal.
“Jon Husted has a documented history of filing last-minute appeals and issuing unconstitutional, 11th-hour directives that aim to prevent convenient early voting hours, and this partisan agenda has wasted over $400,000 of taxpayers’ dollars,” Mr. Redfern said.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf noted that it was a Republican General Assembly that passed absentee/early voting in the first place.
“It was Jon Husted who just mailed out absentee ballot applications to every voter in Ohio,” he said. “Now everyone has a month to vote at any time from the comfort of their own home.”
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.