ACLU files federal lawsuit challenging Ohio's attempts to limit early voting opportunities

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The American Civil Liberties Union is asking a federal court to repeal a new state law and a directive from the Ohio secretary of state that are limiting the number of early voting opportunities in Ohio ahead of the 2014 election.

The lawsuit filed filed Thursday names Secretary of State Jon Husted and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine as defendants. 

The complaint, NAACP v. Husted, seeks to strike down Ohio Senate Bill 238, a 2014 law that eliminated the first week of early voting in the state. Often referred to as "Golden Week," this period allowed voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day, according to a release from the ACLU.

"Ohio has again taken center stage in the battle over voting rights," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "Politicians who tamper with people's fundamental right to vote are being put on notice that they are not going to get away with it.”

The ACLU and the ACLU of Ohio initiated the complaint on behalf of several groups. They include the Ohio Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of Women Voters of Ohio and several African-American churches, the release states. 

The suit is also challenging a recent Husted directive that further cut back the early voting period by eliminating all Sundays, the Monday before Election Day and all evening voting hours.

"Together these cuts will impact tens of thousands of low-income voters, elderly voters, student voters and African-American voters who turn to early in-person voting as their best option for casting a ballot," said Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP.

In the 2012 election, more than 157,000 Ohioans voted on the days that have now been cut. More than 24,000 people cast early voting ballots at Hamilton County's Board of Elections office in downtown Cincinnati.

A disproportionately high percentage of those are low-income voters, many of whom are also African-American, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU argues that:

  • Lower-income voters tend to rely on evening and Sunday voting because they cannot take paid time off of work to vote during regular business hours.
  • Single parents need these hours because it’s the only time they can find friends or family who can provide child care.
  • People experiencing homelessness or severe transience rely on the opportunity to register and vote at the same time during the first week of early voting.
  • And among many within the African-American church community, Sunday voting has become an important cultural tradition.

"These cuts will destroy the 'Souls to the Polls' programs many churches have created to transport parishioners to the polls on the Sunday before Election Day," said Rev. Dale Snyder of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus.

The ACLU contends certain elected officials in Ohio have targeted early voting in the past and continue to show a "pattern" of such behavior.

The Ohio General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that eliminated both Golden Week and the last three days of early voting before Election Day. Voters responded by organizing a ballot referendum to strike down the law, prompting legislators to repeal it on their own, according to the ACLU.

In 2012, Husted issued a directive that cut the same three days of early voting for all non-military voters.

The ACLU says the Obama campaign responded with a federal lawsuit and the court forced Husted to restore the early voting days, allowing an additional 67,000 voters to cast an in-person ballot before the election.

"The people of Ohio organized a referendum expressly to stop these kinds of attacks on early voting and a federal judge has already intervened once for the same purpose," said Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Locally, Husted placed the tie-breaking vote in February that allowed the Hamilton County Board of Elections to Mount Airy after the 2016 election. It was the same day Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed Bill 238 into law.

A Republican, Husted said he agreed moving the administrative office out of the current cramped space on Broadway was in the board’s best interests. Republicans favored the move away from downtown Cincinnati, saying it would allow the board to consolidate its operations and save money on rent.

Among the groups urging the board to keep early voting in downtown are the NAACP’s local chapter, the League of Women Voters and the ACLU of Ohio.

Officials with National Action Network's Greater Cincinnati chapter say they're angered by Husted’s decision.

"The fact that this decision came within 48 hours of the Ohio House’s decision to pass two measures clearly aimed at making voting less accessible points to a dangerous trend of voter suppression,” said Bishop Bobby Hilton, chapter president, in February. 

He was talking about both Bill 238 and Ohio Senate Bill 205, which prohibits individual county boards of election from mailing unsolicited

absentee ballot applications. It allows the Ohio secretary of state to mail them, statewide, but only if lawmakers allocate money to pay for it.

“We need our government officials to work with the people, not work against them,” he said.

Still, Husted in February sent a letter to the board of elections that urged local officials to reach a bipartisan agreement on the issue. He suggested finding a way to improve access to early voting services in Mount Airy by way of public transportation or in moving early voting to an alternate site.

“Between now and 2017, I direct the members of the Hamilton County Board of Elections (either current or future) to work together to either find bipartisan agreement on improving early voting services at the Mount Airy site or jointly working out an alternative early voting location that works for all of Hamilton County,” Husted wrote.

Regardless of anything else, Davis said in Thursday's release that political officials need to make sure they are focusing on what matters most: the needs of the voters.

"Now the same politicians are back with the same bad ideas. Meanwhile, good ideas like online voter registration languish in political limbo. These are the ideas we need to be working on," she said.

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