6th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Ohio District Court ruling restoring early voting

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, Ohio loses early voting appeal; order to expand hours remains intact:

VotersA federal appeals court on Wednesday affirmed a district court decision restoring early voting cuts and expanding early voting hours.

The ruling from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals is a setback for Secretary of State Jon Husted, who had appealed a lower court’s order that he expand early voting hours and move the first day of early voting from Oct. 7 to Sept. 30.

The three-judge panel previously rejected a request to delay the court order pending Husted’s appeal. Husted then expanded statewide early, in-person voting hours while the case proceeded.

Husted, in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon, said he will ask the full appeals court to overturn the panel’s ruling.

Civil rights groups and several African-American churches sued state officials in May over a new state law eliminating “Golden Week,” a week-long window when people could both register to vote and cast a ballot in Ohio, and a statewide early, in-person voting schedule that did not include Sundays. Attorneys led by the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued in U.S. Southern District Court that the reduced number of days burdened low-income and African-American Ohioans who are more likely to take advantage of Golden Week and Sunday voting.

District Court Judge Peter C. Economus agreed, saying the shortened schedule violated the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in an ethnic minority group. He ruled that once Ohio granted a broad scheme of early, in-person voting, state officials could not reduce it in a way that burdened certain groups of voters.

In district court and in their appeal, state attorneys argued that Ohio offers more opportunities to vote than 41 states — voters can cast a ballot on Election Day, by mailing an absentee ballot during a 28-day period or voting in-person on 22 of those 28 days.

The court said that argument was not relevant in weighing the burden on voters.

“Early voting does not necessarily play the same role in all jurisdictions in ensuring that certain groups of voters are actually able to vote. Thus, the same law may impose a significant burden in one state and only a minimal burden in another,” Circuit Court Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote in the opinion. Judges Eric L. Clay and Damon J. Keith concurred.

“Once again a court has stepped up to safeguard the vote for thousands of Ohioans who want to participate in the midterm election free of obstruction,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “This decision protects the people’s voice at the polls and the integrity of our elections.”

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Ohio lawmakers established no-fault absentee voting, which allowed early, in-person voting, after the troubled 2004 election. The appeals court recognized this history and African-American churches’ “Souls to the Polls” tradition in its opinion.

“In the nearly ten years since, early, in-person voting has come to play a special role in Ohio in ensuring that African Americans have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process that is not necessarily true elsewhere,” Moore wrote. “There is no reason to think our decision here compels any conclusion about the early-voting practices in other states, which do not necessarily share Ohio’s particular circumstances.”

The court also upheld Economus’ opinion that voting by mail is not a suitable alternative to casting a ballot in person for many voters. Appeals court judges also agreed lower-income voters, who rely on public transportation and likely work wage-based jobs, would have difficulty voting at boards of election between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., the statewide weekday hours set by Husted.

State Sen. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat running against Husted in November’s general election, was quick to praise the ruling.

“This ruling affirms what we already know: that attempts to roll back ballot access are misguided and harm hard working Ohioans, people of color, and low income voters,” Turner said in a statement. “With only days left until early voting is set to begin, I urge Secretary Husted to respect the court’s ruling and work to make sure that Ohioans know when and where they can cast their ballots.”

Read the 6th Circuit Court Opinion HERE (.pdf).

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