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Major Court Ruling Restores Early Voting Days In Ohio

Voters cast ballots in the primary election in Chesterville, Ohio. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE
Voters cast ballots in the primary election in Chesterville, Ohio. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE

The U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio ruled Tuesday that the deep cuts to Ohio’s early voting days signed into law by Gov. John Kasich (R) are “unconstitutional and…accordingly unenforceable.”

Judge Michael Watson sided with the Ohio Democratic Party, which had sued the state for sharply curtailing the number of early voting days. Since President Obama won reelection in 2012, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers and Secretary of State have voted to eliminate the days and times of early voting that were most convenient for those working full time: the weekend before election day, weekday evenings, and what’s known as “Golden Week,” the time about a month before election day when the registration period and the early voting period overlap.

These cuts, the judge wrote, “results in less opportunity for African Americans to participate in the political process than other voters.”

The court ordered the Republican governor and Secretary of State to once again allow voters to begin casting ballots 35 days before November’s presidential election. Republicans may appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Multiple studies have found that voters of color disproportionately rely on early voting, especially weekend days, and especially the “Golden Week” of same-day registration. Tens of thousands of people voted during “Golden Week” in 2012 alone, more than enough to sway an election in the tightly contested swing state.

“Many voters of color have inflexible work schedules that make coming to their polling place on a single Tuesday in November very difficult,” Mike Brickner, the Senior Policy Director for the ACLU of Ohio, told ThinkProgress. “Because of the historic and systemic oppression of African Americans in our voting system, many choose to take advantage of early in-person voting. In that community, mailing in your ballot is not favored choice, because it doesn’t feel as though it will really be counted.” Judge Watson agreed, saying in his ruling that “the record reflects that African Americans are distrustful of voting by mail.”

A bipartisan presidential commission also found that early voting helps reduce long lines and chaos on election day, something that has been a particular problem in recent Ohio elections. Judge Watson noted in his ruling that the state’s early voting cuts “will likely result in longer lines at the polls, thereby increasing the burdens for those who must wait in those lines and deterring voting.”

Attorneys for the state defended the cuts by arguing that even Ohio’s reduced number of voting days was more generous than many other states, some of which offer no early voting at all. But his ruling, the District Court judge rejected that argument, saying that the plaintiffs proved the rollback of options in Ohio hurt voters of color.  In 2014, the ACLU also sued state for cutting early voting. Though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the law from going into effect in that year’s midterm elections, Brickner and other voting rights advocates did force the state to restore some weekend voting days. Today’s ruling goes further, restoring the “Golden Week” in which voters could register and vote in a single trip to the Board of Elections.

Brickner told ThinkProgress the decision is particularly important for homeless voters. “They don’t have a permanent address, so for each election they have to re-register,” he explained. “For them, to be able to do everything in one trip is incredibly important. The same goes for people who move frequently or have busy work or family lives.”

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Unlike 12 other states and D.C., Ohio does not allow voters to register on election day. Though the state’s House of Representatives voted on Tuesday for online voter registration, it would not be implemented until 2017.

Update:

Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is appealing the ruling and hoping to reinstate the early voting cuts.