Dispute over Ohio’s voting rules in hands of federal judge

Published 9:15 am Thursday, December 24, 2015

COLUMBUS (AP) — A legal dispute over changes to voting rules in swing state Ohio is now in the hands of a federal judge.

At issue are a series of Republican-backed revisions that Democrats allege disproportionately burden black voters and those who lean Democratic.

The state’s Democratic Party is among the plaintiffs suing the state’s Republican elections chief over the policy changes. Those include the elimination of a week of early voting in which Ohioans could also register to vote, known as the “golden week.”

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Both sides filed their closing comments with the court Tuesday. They now await a ruling from U.S. District Judge Michael Watson.

The state’s attorneys say the voting changes were minor and Ohioans have many opportunities to vote. They note that residents will have 23 days over a 29-day period to vote in-person before the 2016 presidential election, along with 13 hours on Election Day. Plus, Ohioans can vote early by mail.

“In today’s Ohio, without question, it is easy to vote,” the state’s attorneys wrote in their latest court filing.

But Democrats’ argue the policy changes have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who they say are more likely to have limited access to child care and transportation, and more likely to work in hourly wage jobs with little flexibility to vote. They say the number of people who registered and voted during golden week in 2008 and 2012 was higher in counties with more a higher ratio of minorities.

“There is, in short, no doubt that the disparate burdens imposed by the challenged provisions are caused by or linked to the ongoing effects of the history of discrimination against African Americans in Ohio,” the Democrats’ attorneys wrote in Tuesday’s filings.

The state argues the plaintiffs have failed to prove any intentional discrimination, and say experts who testified on Ohio’s behalf have demonstrated the challenged laws have had no negative effect on any Ohio voter.

Plus, Ohio’s attorneys argue the challenged laws have been in place for two elections. “Overturning the laws would cut against the state’s interest in stability and potentially create confusion,” they wrote.

Other challenged policies relate to absentee and provisional ballots, and limitations to in-person, early voting locations.

The plaintiffs want the court block all the challenged policies from being enforced.

The lawsuit was filed in May, shortly after Secretary of State Jon Husted reached a deal in April with the Ohio chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights groups in a separate, long-running dispute over early voting. That case had challenged the early voting hours that Husted set and the elimination of golden week.

The settlement in the NAACP case expanded the early voting times, but did not reinstate golden week.