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In Ohio, battle rages over access to voting

A court has restored same-day registration in Ohio -- for now. But Republicans are pulling out plenty of other gambits to keep voters from the polls.
In this Oct. 29, 2012 file photo a \"Vote Early\" sign is held up by supporters at a rally for President Barack Obama in Youngstown, Ohio, referring to the \"golden week\" now in contention. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)
In this Oct. 29, 2012 file photo a \"Vote Early\" sign is held up by supporters at a rally for President Barack Obama in Youngstown, Ohio, referring to the \"golden week\" now in contention.

With Ohio set to once again be a pivotal swing state this fall, the state’s Republicans are looking to restrict access to the voting booth—extending a sprawling battle over voting in the Buckeye State that has raged for more than a decade.

A recent court ruling foiled the GOP’s bid to end same-day voter registration—for now. But a controversial new Republican-backed bill would make it harder to keep polls open late if unforeseen problems arise, as they have in the past. Meanwhile, the state’s top election official is being sued over a controversial purge of the voter rolls. And even a measure to let voters register online that has won GOP support is nonetheless causing controversy.

The stakes in Ohio could hardly be higher. The state is shaping up to reprise its status as a crucial battleground in the presidential election this November. It also hosts a tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland that could help determine control of the chamber.

In the most high-profile recent development, a federal district court judge last week blocked a 2014 GOP-backed law that eliminated “Golden Week”—a six-day period when Buckeye State voters can register and vote early all in one trip to the polls. In 2012, around 80,000 people, disproportionately minorities, took advantage of Golden Week. The court ruled that scrapping Golden Week violated the Voting Rights Act's ban on racial discrimination in voting.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted quickly appealed the ruling, suggesting Golden Week had allowed for illegal voting. “Out-of-state voters were illegally registering to vote and casting ballots during this time period,” Husted said in a statement. “Eliminating Golden Week reduced the growing potential for voter fraud.”

In 2013, Husted acknowledged that illegal voting of any kind represented just 0.02 percent of all registered voters, at most.

But the ongoing fight over Golden Week is just one piece of a multi-year political and legal battle over voting hours in Ohio, with Democrats pushing to expand access and Republicans trying to limit it.

The roots of the controversy go all the way back to 2004, when massive lines at the polls, especially in minority- and student-heavy areas, kept an estimated 174,000 would-be voters from casting a ballot. President George W. Bush won Ohio, and with it the election, by 119,000 votes. In response, the state established a lengthy early voting period, including Golden Week.

In 2008, things went smoothly, as Barack Obama won the state with record minority turnout. But after the GOP regained control of state government in 2011, they put things in reverse, cutting early voting hours, eliminating Golden Week, making it harder to get an absentee ballot and even reducing the number of voting machines that counties must have on hand. After voting rights groups sued, a 2015 settlement restored some but not all of the early voting hours, and left the elimination of Golden Week in place, until last week’s ruling.

Republicans are also looking to restrict voting hours on Election Day itself. A bill passed last week would force would-be voters to put up a cash bond when asking a court to extend voting hours because of an emergency like a natural disaster or administrative problems. The measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Bill Seitz, was upset that in recent elections, local courts had kept polls open in Hamilton County past the standard 7:30 p.m. closing time to make sure voters weren't disenfranchised by unforeseen emergencies: a software glitch that wiped out the county’s electronic poll books in 2015, and a traffic accident that caused long backups earlier this year.

Democrats have called Seitz’s bill a “discriminatory poll tax.” And Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University, has said it will “impose practically insurmountable barriers on access to state court for voters who are not wealthy.” Gov. John Kasich hasn’t yet said whether he plans to sign it.

Then there are the battles over the voter rolls. In April, voting rights groups sued Husted over his controversial policy of removing from the rolls anyone who failed to vote in the last three federal elections or any intervening contest. The groups say what Husted is doing not only violates federal voting law but also is unnecessary, because the state already uses U.S. Postal Service information to keep the rolls up to date.

“We have spoken to purged voters from around the state of Ohio who tried to vote in the November 2015 local election and were turned away,” an ACLU lawyer said in a statement. “The already widespread disenfranchisement that has resulted from this process is likely to be much worse in a presidential election year.”

Even on an issue where some had seen the chance for bipartisan cooperation, online voter registration, there has been acrimony. Last week, lawmakers approved a measure to allow online voter registration—with Husted’s enthusiastic support. The problem? Republicans ensured that the new system won’t take effect until 2017, even though Husted says it’s ready to go now. That means it won’t help get Ohioans onto the rolls for this fall’s election.

One Democratic lawmaker has also raised the concern that the law appears to require that in the interim, the state must shut down a system currently in place that allows voters to change their address online, though Husted has said he doesn’t plan to do that.

One thing's for sure, though: the struggle over access to voting in the nation's ultimate swing state is a long way from over.