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Court blocks another set of voting restrictions in Ohio

A judge axed restrictions on absentee ballots, writing: "Voter suppression tactics...are now merely cloaked in ostensibly race-neutral language."
Voters cast their ballots for the Ohio primary at Saint Patrick's Social Hall in Youngstown, Ohio, March 15, 2016. (Photo by Aaron Bernstein/Reuters)
Voters cast their ballots for the Ohio primary at Saint Patrick's Social Hall in Youngstown, Ohio, March 15, 2016.

Ohio Republicans looking to make it harder to vote this fall have suffered another setback in court.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, a federal judge blocked several GOP-backed measures that restrict the casting and counting of absentee ballots, finding that they’re racially discriminatory. 

"Voter suppression tactics have not disappeared but are now merely cloaked in ostensibly race-neutral language," U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley wrote, referring to the broader effort in the state to limit access to the polls for minorities.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said in a statement that he planned to appeal, saying the ruling would produce “chaos.”

The decision is the latest development in a sprawling, high-stakes fight over voting rules in the nation's most pivotal swing state. And for Husted, it's the second court defeat in as many weeks on voting issues. Late last month, a different federal judge ruled that the GOP legislature’s elimination of “Golden Week”—a week when Ohio voters can register and vote early all in one—also discriminated against racial minorities. Husted is appealing that decision, too.

Husted is also being sued by voting rights groups for removing voters from the rolls if they haven’t voted in any of the last three federal elections or any of the elections in between. An analysis by Reuters found last week that in the state’s three largest counties, voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods have been removed at around twice the rate as voters in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. And a GOP-supported bill that would make it harder for voters to ask a court to extend polling hours because of an unforeseen event is currently before Gov. John Kasich.

At issue in Tuesday’s ruling were a set of changes made by Republicans in 2014 to the laws governing absentee ballots. One required that absentee ballots be thrown out if voters made technical errors in filling them out, including in writing their name, address or date of birth. Another shortened the period during which voters could fix such errors. A third barred poll workers from helping to fill out ballots unless the voter affirmed that he or she was disabled or illiterate. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the laws amounted to a literacy test, because in practice they required voters to write information on voting forms without making an error. They identified over 4,100 ballots that were thrown out because of technical errors. And they contended that, thanks to a history discrimination, the effect hit non-whites hardest.

Marbley ruled that all those measures violated bans on racial discrimination in the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. And he found that the laws were part of a climate of “racial appeals” in the state’s politics.

“From an email from a top Republican Party official denigrating the 'urban—read African-American—voter turnout machine' to racist appeals like the 'Obama phone lady' ad, Ohio has seen both overt and subtle racial appeals in campaigns over the last several years,” Marbley wrote. “Moreover, the targeting of minority communities for anti-voter fraud efforts, including with billboards, is an indication that voter suppression tactics have not disappeared but are now merely cloaked in ostensibly race-neutral language. Old dogs, it seems, can learn new tricks.”

“For the second time in less than a month, Ohio voters have won a huge victory in the courts, and Secretary of State Jon Husted is being forced to stop making it harder for Ohioans to vote and for every vote to be counted,” said David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, which was a plaintiff in the case. “This trial showed quite clearly that every lawfully cast vote was not being counted here in Ohio. Many lawfully registered Ohioans have had their votes cast aside because of new and unnecessary requirements that were shown to be discriminatory."

Brian Davis, the executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, another plaintiff, said his group had been hesitant to recommend that homeless people vote by mail because so many people were tripped up by the GOP-backed rules.

“This will increase the chances that that ballot will count,” Davis said.