Federal judge hears Ohio early-voting argument


COLUMBUS — Ohio created a new right to early voting and cannot use cost figures to now justify infringing on that right, voting rights activists argued today before a federal judge.

But the state argued that there’s no such thing as a constitutional right to cast a no-fault absentee ballot, which is what in-person early voting is. It contends Ohio has one of the most liberal voting systems in the nation.

The League of Women Voters, NAACP, and several African-American churches sued to reinstate weekend and evening early voting hours that voters took advantage of during the 2012 presidential election. They’re also seeking to reinstate the so-called Golden Week, a six-day overlap between the prior 35-day absentee and early voting window and the 30-day deadline for voter registration during which a would-be voter could register and cast an absentee ballot on the spot.

“Defendants don’t even dispute that Sunday voting is an African American phenomenon…,” said Sean Young, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “One Sunday afternoon isn’t enough to conduct all of these Souls to Polls activities.”

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of a largely Republican-passed law that eliminated Golden Week and the directive issued by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted that set the hours for the remaining 28 to 29 days of in-person early voting.

“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.

A ruling against Ohio, he said, would be tantamount to a ruling against dozens of other states with weaker laws.

The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge Peter Economus, who 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.

“The remedy is different here than the remedy required in Obama for America…It’s a different animal,” Judge Economus said, noting the vast difference in expected turnout for the 2014 gubernatorial election compared to the 2012 presidential election.

“Be fair to all Ohio voters,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

He did not issue an immediate ruling.

The lawsuit contends that Senate Bill 238 and Mr. Husted’s directive that together reduced in-person early voting days and hours disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters. African-American churches in recent years have bused their congregations to the polls directly after Sunday services to take advantage of early voting, but Mr. Husted’s directive provides only for the Sunday immediately preceding the election.

“It’s only because of your honor that we got one Sunday back,” Mr. Young said.

The lawsuit caught the attention of the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a brief supporting the lawsuit

Mr. Husted’s directive largely limits in-person voting to weekday business hours, two Saturdays, and a single Sunday.