the Beacon Journal editorial board
A year ago, Jon Husted, the secretary of state, reached a settlement with the Ohio Chapter of the NAACP and other plaintiffs in their long legal fight over early voting. The agreement offered the prospect of Ohio getting through this year’s presidential election cycle without the familiar clashes in court and the risk of eroding public confidence.
No surprise that the litigation did not cease, and it won’t now after federal district Judge Michael Watson on Tuesday struck down the 2014 state law that eliminated “Golden Week.” The label refers to the seven days when early voting has started, yet voter registration remains open. Thus, Ohioans had the option of registering and casting a ballot on the same day.
The judge concluded from his reading of the evidence that the end of Golden Week adversely affected black voters more than others. He noted that black voters are more likely to vote early and in person. He stressed that in presidential election years, the share of voters during Golden Week was five times heavier in black neighborhoods than in white ones.
The state already has announced its intention to appeal the ruling. Officials should drop the idea. The judge, appointed by George W. Bush, it is worth adding, has struck middle ground, with the state landing pretty much where it stood after lawmakers rightly responded to the debacle in 2004, when some voters waited hours to cast ballots in the presidential election.
Then, a bipartisan majority of the legislature enacted an early voting system that included Golden Week. The process worked well in 2008, with no hint of voter fraud, about which Judge Watson expressed appropriate skepticism.
Secretary Husted can cite his own examples of bipartisan support. Democratic and Republican county elections officials have backed the elimination of Golden Week, in part, to ensure a clean separation between registration and voting. In 2009, the Democratic majority in the House even supported the idea, albeit within a package of other reforms.
And that settlement with the Ohio Chapter of the NAACP? It, too, terminated Golden Week. It set 28 days for early voting with expanded hours on the weekends as Election Day approaches.
That still made Ohio one of most generous states for early voting. Imagine, then, the frustration in the secretary of state’s office when soon after the deal, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative filed another lawsuit, resulting in the ruling this week. At the same time, Judge Watson sided with Republican lawmakers in limiting early voting to one location per county and reducing the number of voting machines counties must have.
Which gets to the virtue in putting an end to the litigation at last. Ohio has been debating early voting for more than a decade, and now it stands close to what both Republicans and Democrats once embraced, including 35 days of early voting and Golden Week.
Let’s call a truce, and be proud that few other states are as accommodating to voters.