Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Federal Judge Rules Ohio Early-Voting Reduction Unconstitutional

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2016 at 12:03 PM

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On Tuesday, an Ohio Federal Court ruled that voters' rights were violated when the state cut the number of early voting days from 35 to 28.

According to an article in The Columbus Dispatch, Judge Michael H. Watson of the U.S. District Court in Columbus said the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature violated the federal constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2014 when it reduced the state's early voting period.

With his decision, Watson reinstated the time previously known as the "Golden Week", during which residents had a weeklong opportunity to both register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time. 

Early voting in Ohio was born from the 2004 election after voters stood in line for hours waiting to cast their ballots. Thousands went home without voting, particularly in heavily minority and Democratic urban areas.

In 2014, Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 238 into law. This legislation both eliminated the Golden Week and cut down on the number of in-person, early voting days.

Ohio's voting period is among the most generous in the nation; however, the former reduction "will disproportionately burden African-Americans," wrote Judge Watson. 

Watson also noted in his ruling that black voters took advantage of the Golden Week three and a half times as often as white voters in 2008 and five times as often in 2012, as stated in the aforementioned Dispatch article.

Restoring the Golden Week allows voters to cast a ballot with only one visit to the polling booth, and would largely help homeless voters by no longer requiring them to re-register with every election.

"Based on this evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the reduction in overall time to vote will burden the right to vote of African Americans, who use [early in-person] voting significantly more than other voters," Watson said in a 120-page opinion.

Kasich's office referred questions regarding the decision to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who oversees elections and who joined Attorney General Mike DeWine as defendants of the bill in this case.

Husted said, "For nearly 200 years, Ohioans voted for only one day...If it was constitutional for lawmakers to expand the voting period to 35 days, it must also be constitutional for the same legislative body to amend the time frame to 28 days."

The original justifications for the reduction — reducing fraud, trimming costs, avoiding voter confusion — were described by Watson as weak, and he ordered Husted and DeWine to stop enforcing the shortened voting period.

The judge's decision was supported by State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, who was one of the original opponents of the bill in 2014.

A member of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, Reece said, "I am pleased that the federal court has affirmed what we knew all along — that the elimination of the same day voter registration was an unconstitutional restriction on our most basic democratic right that disproportionately affected minority voters in Ohio."

State Democratic Party Chairman, David Pepper, also spoke out in support of Judge Watson's ruling, calling it, "an enormous win for Ohio voters" while also criticizing Kasich and Husted for compromising Ohioans' right to vote.

Pepper, when asked if the Golden Week could make a difference in this year's presidential election, replied, "In a very close race, it could actually change the outcome on an election."

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