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ACLU sues Ohio over early voting cuts

Ohio’s cuts to early voting discriminate against racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges.
People cast their ballots for the presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2012.
People cast their ballots for the presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2012.

Ohio’s cuts to early voting and elimination of same-day registration discriminate against racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act, a new lawsuit alleges.

The suit, filed Thursday in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, offers a chance that the controversial cuts, enacted in the nation's most pivotal swing state, could be blocked before the November election. And it will provide the latest test of the recently weakened Voting Rights Act’s ability to stop the wave of Republican-backed voting restrictions enacted in recent years.

"Ohio has again taken center stage in the battle over voting rights," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "Politicians who tamper with people's fundamental right to vote are being put on notice that they are not going to get away with it.”

Because minorities are more likely than whites to take advantage of early voting opportunities, in Ohio and elsewhere, the ACLU lawsuit claims, the cuts violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars election laws that have a discriminatory effect, as well as the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

"These reductions in early voting and registration opportunities will significantly impact thousands of voters, especially African-American voters," the complaint, obtained by msnbc, charges.

In the space of just over a week in February, the Ohio GOP made it significantly harder to vote early in the Buckeye State.

First, they passed a law that cut six days from the early voting period—including, crucially, the so-called “Golden Week”, when people can register and vote at the same time. Experts say same-day registration is among the most effective ways to bring new voters into the process. Then Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican,followed up by announcing uniform new hours for early voting, which eliminated early voting on Sundays and on weekday evenings.

In the 2012 election, more than 157,000 Ohioans voted on the days that have now been cut, according to the complaint. they are disproportionately low-income and African-American. 

In recent years, many black churches have organized voting drives after church, something that would no longer be possible. "These cuts will destroy the 'Souls to the Polls' programs many churches have created to transport parishioners to the polls on the Sunday before Election Day," said the Rev. Dale Snyder of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus.

The lawsuit will offer a test of how effective Section 2 is at stopping he recent wave of voting restrictions—a key question in the wake of the Supreme Court’s neutering of Section 5 last year. There’s little precedent for Section 2 being used to successfully overturn the recent wave of voting restrictions. But on Tuesday, a federal judge in Wisconsin struck down that state’s voter ID law under Section 2, ruling that it discriminated against racial minorities who are more likely to lack ID. The ACLU led the legal effort in that case, too. The ruling is being appealed.

And more broadly, the courts have proved an effective line of defense against GOP voting restrictions. Recently, state courts have struck down voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas (though the Arkansas ruling was partially stayed this week).

In 2012, Husted cut the last three days of early voting, including a Saturday and Sunday. That move was reversed after the Obama campaign filed a lawsuit. But that claim was brought not under the Voting Rights Act but under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, because the cuts didn’t apply to members of the military.

Ohio Democrats running for statewide office welcomed the lawsuit.

"The new restrictions that Governor Kasich has signed into law amount to legalized discrimination, plain and simple,” Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is running for governor, told msnbc in a statement. “I look forward to working with the ACLU to protect the right to vote here in Ohio." 

And State Sen. Nina Turner, a staunch voting rights advocate who is challenging Husted for secretary of state, said: "While it is unfortunate that advocates of ballot access must again turn to litigation, I commend the ACLU for continuing to stand up for the rights of all Ohioans. There is no right more fundamental than voting, and we ought to be doing everything possible to make casting a ballot simple, convenient, and secure."

The complaint was filed on behalf of the Ohio Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and several African-American churches. It is NAACP v. Husted, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division.

Late Update, 2:34 pm: Husted responded to the suit in a statement. “The ACLU would be better served to focus on states like New York or Delaware or Michigan or Kentucky where there’s no early voting at all," he said. "Trying to scare" voters into believing voting is hard is "the real voter suppression," he added.