As happened in 2012, early voting has become a flashpoint in Ohio, the American Civil Liberties Union late last week filing a lawsuit in federal court. One target is a directive from Jon Husted, the Ohio secretary of state, that set uniform hours for in-person absentee voting. The other is a new law that eliminated “golden week,” during which voters could register and cast an absentee ballot on the same day.
The ACLU, acting on behalf of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and several African-American churches, contends that reducing early voting opportunities violates the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution because it has the effect of disenfranchising voters, especially minorities.
Worth remembering is that both Husted’s directive and the legislature’s action on golden week once enjoyed bipartisan support. What’s more, even if the actions are left intact, Ohio will still be a leader in providing access to the ballot.
Husted, a Republican, long had urged lawmakers to set uniform hours for early voting, correctly fearing lawsuits if counties continued to act on their own, setting the stage for legal conflicts over equal access to the ballot in a close election. The legislature did not act, so Husted followed the recommendations of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, a bipartisan organization.
The result? No Sunday or evening hours and no early voting on the Monday before Election Day. Ideally, at least one Sunday would be included, the ACLU and others presenting convincing evidence of heavy use of early voting by low-income voters, the elderly, students and others. Many are African-American.
Still, battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia have no early voting. And as matters now stand, Ohio has 29 days for early voting in most elections, compared to the national average of just 19.
In ending “golden week,” the Republican-dominated legislature eliminated a somewhat clumsy overlap, early voting beginning before the close of voter registration, creating an administrative burden for local boards of elections. Ending the overlap was also supported by the group of local elections officials.
The best way forward would be for the legislature to take a comprehensive, bipartisan approach to election reform, taking up, for example, another Husted priority, electronic voter registration, which would reduce Ohio’s heavy use of provisional ballots.
What’s happened is an unfortunate pattern of piecemeal actions, Republicans making marginal changes that work to their advantage, often under the cover of fighting voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent. In response, Democrats and their allies raise strenuous objections, file lawsuits and fire up their voters.
Ohio has made progress since 2004, when it encountered severe problems at the polls, leading to early voting. Much work remains to be done. Unfortunately, it looks like it will be a fight every step of the way.