Cleveland.com reports that a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled last Thursday that early voting days in Ohio that were eliminated by the Ohio legislature and Ohio Secretary of State John Husted must be reinstated. Plaintiffs, including the Ohio NAACP, League of Women Voters and several African-American churches had challenged changes made in the last year to Ohio election law and procedure by the state legislature and Secretary Husted. Judge Peter Economus granted preliminary injunctive relief to plaintiffs, reinstating voting days and ordering Husted to order local boards of election to set uniform voting hours on days and at times that had been excluded from the voting calendar.
Election laws in Ohio had previously allowed a greater number of days of early in-person voting, with ballots to be made available for those choosing to use them on the 35th day before an election was to take place. Current Ohio law also permits citizens to register to vote until up to 30 days before an election. With these laws in place, there existed a period of time referred to as the "Golden Week" where voters could register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day. In February 2014 Ohio passed a law (SB 238) amending existing voting laws to make the absentee ballots available the day after voter registration closes for a given election. This law effectively eliminated the Golden Week and reduced early voting from 35 days to 28. Husted had also issued a directive setting uniform voting hours and a voting schedule that excluded certain holidays, Sundays and evening hours.
Plaintiffs challenged this law and the schedule of early in-person voting hours as unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, alleging that these restrictive measures "impermissibly burden the right to vote of various groups including African Americans, lower income individuals, and the homeless." The defendants cited concerns over voter fraud and waste of tax-payer resources in defense of the changes to the law and new uniform schedule.
Judge Economus found that both the amended law and the limited schedule of early voting days and times were unconstitutional and violated the Voting Rights Act, stating that these measures "arbitrarily make it harder for certain groups of citizens to vote." With respect to the amended law, he specifically found that, "the Plaintiffs’evidence paints a portrait illustrating the importance of Golden Week to those struggling on the margins of society. Such individuals are more likely to move frequently and lack access to transportation. Day to day life for such individuals can be chaotic and merely focused on survival... For these reasons, the opportunity to register and vote at the same time during Golden Week is more than a mere convenience to poorer individuals and the homeless, it can make the difference between being able to exercise the fundamental right to vote and not being able to do so."
According to Cleveland.com, Husted stated that the judge's ruling with respect to the voting schedule "'kicks the door open' to having different hours in each of Ohio's 88 counties, which is not fair and uniform." His office has since filed an appeal of the injunction.