Ohio’s Restriction On Early Voting Struck Down by District Court

U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Watson ruled on Tuesday, May 24, 2016 that Ohio’s shortening of its early voting period from 35 days to 28 days was in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Update August 23, 2016: Three-member appeals court panel upholds Ohio’s early voter restrictions.

In 2014 the Republican-controlled legislature in Ohio voted to shorten the state’s early voting period from 35 days to 28 days. In doing so, it not only eliminated an extra seven days to vote, but the seven-day period referred to as the Golden Week, when Ohio residents can both register to vote and cast absentee ballots at the same time.

Watson said in 120-page opinion explaining his ruling that Ohio’s reduction of early voting days disproportionately affected African Americans, who, Watson noted, took advantage of the Golden Week 3.5 times as often as white residents in 2008 and 5 times as often as whites in 2012. The Court’s opinion stated, “Based on this evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the reduction in overall time to vote will burden the right to vote of African Americans, who use (early in-person) voting significantly more than other voters.

Specifically, the U.S. District Court in Columbus, stated the Ohio’s shortening of the early voting period violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Court found that the defendants in this case, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine provided insufficient and weak reasoning for the change in the early voting period.

At stake could be the very outcome of both the presidential election and state offices in the upcoming November election. Ohio is historically an important swing state in presidential elections. In 2012, when the 35-day early voting period, including the Golden Week, were in force, Barack Obama won Ohio by fewer than 200,000 votes.

The defendants justified their position by citing a reduction in the opportunity for voter fraud, avoiding voter confusion and cutting costs, rationale that did not stand up to what Watson found to be violations of both the Constitution and federal law. Watson ordered Husted and DeWine to cease enforcing the shortened early voting period.

On the defendants’ part, a spokesman for DeWine’s office said that the U.S. District Court’s ruling in the matter would be appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Husted released a statement, saying in part, “for nearly 200 years, Ohioans voted for only one day. If it was constitutional for lawmakers to expand the voting period to 35 days, it must also be constitutional for the same legislative body to amend the timeframe to 28 days, a timeframe that remains one of the most generous in the nation.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California in Irvine, an expert on voting rights, has said that this case from Ohio, along with other voting rights laws being appealed in a number of states, could easily land in the U.S. Supreme Court. While Hansen explains his thinking that clarification of the Voting Rights Act, particularly in light of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down some of that Act in the Shelby County vs. Holder case, needs clarification on a federal level, the court would likely split on the issue 4 to 4, with the ninth member yet replaced.


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