Ohio cuts early voting method favored by blacks

People cast their ballots for the US presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2012.
People cast their ballots for the US presidential election at an early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2012.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted announced Tuesday he is cutting early voting on Sundays and weekday evenings, dealing another blow to the voting rights effort in the nation's most pivotal swing state.

Husted's change would spell doom for a voting method that's popular among African-Americans in Ohio and elsewhere. Many churches and community groups lead "Souls to the Polls" drives after church on the Sunday before the election.

There's little doubt that cuts to early voting target blacks disproportionately. In 2008, black voters were 56% of all weekend voters in Cuyahoga County, Ohio's largest, even though they made up just 28% of the county's population.

"By completely eliminating Sundays from the early voting schedule, Secretary Husted has effectively quashed successful Souls to the Polls programs that brought voters directly form church to early voting sites," said Mike Brickner, a spokesman for the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, in an email.

The news comes days after Republican Gov. John Kasich signed two GOP-backed bills that cut six more days from the early voting period, end same-day registration and make it harder to vote absentee. Together, the restrictions could significantly reduce minority turnout this fall and in 2016.

Husted's office announced that early voting would now be available on weekdays up to 5 p.m. in the four weeks before the general election, and on the last two Saturdays up to 4 p.m. Previously, many Ohioans, especially in crowded urban areas, had been able to vote early on the two Sundays before the election.

Brickner, of the ACLU, noted that Husted is also ending weekday evening hours for early voting in the general election. 

"This directive simply ignores the reality of many working Ohioans who do not have flexible work schedules or must wrestle with childcare responsibilities and cannot leave to vote during the normal workday," he said.

Husted's office said it was adopting a bipartisan proposal put forward by the Ohio Association of Elections Officials. It called the new plan "fair and uniform." 

Republicans in the state have argued that it's important to create a uniform state-wide standard for early voting hours, rather than giving counties flexibility to set their own hours according to the needs of their voters. 

This isn't Husted's first effort to cut Sunday voting. In 2012, he tried to end voting on the weekend and the Monday directly before an election for everyone except service-members. That scheme failed after the Obama campaign sued and won in court.

Husted, a Republican, faces a re-election fight this fall against State Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat and staunch voting rights supporter.

"There is no justification for arbitrarily denying the vast majority of Ohio voters’ access to open polling places," Turner said in a statement. "The courts have previously spoken on this, but once again, our current Secretary of State is ignoring justice."