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Settlement reverses some cuts to Ohio early voting

A new legal settlement reverses some but not all of the cuts to early voting pushed through by Republicans last year. Both sides are claiming victory.
Ohio voters cast their votes at the polls for early voting in the 2012 US presidential election in Medina, Ohio, Oct. 26, 2012. (Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
Ohio voters cast their votes at the polls for early voting in the 2012 US presidential election in Medina, Ohio, Oct. 26, 2012.

Voting rights advocates and Ohio’s top election official have settled a lawsuit over controversial cuts to the pivotal presidential state’s early voting period.

The deal, announced Friday morning between Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, and the ACLU, undoes some but not all of the damage to voting access caused by last year’s cuts. It restores one day of Sunday voting and adds weekday evening hours, but lets stand the elimination of a week when Ohioans had been able to register and vote all in one day.

It also ensures that all counties will have the same voting schedule — something Husted had named as a priority and that voting rights advocates too say will reduce confusion.

Both sides called it a win.

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“This agreement is a victory for Ohio voters,” said Husted. “With the issues that accompany the 2016 presidential election drawing nearer it is important that we resolve these lingering questions now. Ohio has been and will remain a state where it is easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, also considered it to be a move in the right direction. "Thousands of Ohioans rely on early voting opportunities as their only chance to cast a ballot in an election,” Ho said. “This is a victory for all those who know that a healthy democracy depends on the participation of its people."

But the elimination of same-day voter registration is a setback to ballot access in Ohio. In 2012, more than 90,000 Ohioans voted during that period, according to the ACLU's complaint.* 

But it may be outweighed by the restored Sunday and evening hours. According to an expert analysis presented during the court fight over the cuts, only 4,211 of those 90,000 people who voted during Golden Week also registered during that time. The rest were already registered. Meanwhile, nearly 30,000 people voted on the final Sunday of early voting.  

In February 2014, Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law that eliminated the week of same-day registration. Known as “Golden Week,” it had been established after all-day lines at the polls in 2004 made Ohio the poster child for voting problems. Soon afterward, Husted followed up by eliminating all Sunday voting, which had the effect of ending the “Souls to the Polls” drives that many black churches undertake. Husted also required that weekday voting end at 5 p.m.

In the 2012 election, 157,000 Ohioans — disproportionately minorities — voted on the days that were cut.

The ACLU challenged both moves in a lawsuit filed last May, alleging that the cuts violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against racial minorities.

Specifically, the agreement adds a Sunday of early voting, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., for presidential elections. That means that next fall there will be a total of two Sundays of early voting, since a district court judge last year reinstated voting on the Sunday directly before the election.

The deal also extends weekday voting hours during the final week of primary and general elections by two hours, until 7 p.m. Evening hours are especially useful for people who work low-wage jobs and often have trouble taking time off to get to the polls. And the agreement adds a Saturday of early voting — something some but not all counties had previously offered.

In a phone interview Friday, Freda Levenson, the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, acknowledged that the settlement was far from perfect. Allowing the elimination of Golden Week, she said, “was the concession that we made in order to obtain the days and hours of early voting.”

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Because Golden Week was eliminated via legislation rather than executive action, Levenson added, it was more difficult to restore. “It’s hard to compel the legislature to do something,” she said.

The case has been through twists and turns. A federal district court judge struck down the cuts, and an appeals court upheld that ruling. But last September, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay, ensuring that the cuts were in place for last November’s midterms.

The settlement means the case won't be the one that gives the Supreme Court a chance to rule broadly on the scope of the Voting Rights Act. Many observers expect the justices to issue such a ruling before next fall's election.

Husted has gained a national reputation as a supporter of tough voting restrictions. Earlier this year, he wrote to President Obama to warn that the White House’s executive order on immigration could make it easier for non-citizens to cast ballots. Husted was re-elected easily last fall, defeating state Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat and staunch voting rights advocate.

CORRECTION: This sentence originally reported that 90,000 Ohioans registered and voted during Golden Week. In fact, that's the number that voted during that time. Many of those voters were previously registered.