New Settlement Ends Ohio Early Voting Dispute

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[Image courtesy of discoverohio]

One case I’ve been watching is the ongoing dispute between voting rights activists and the state of Ohio regarding dates and times for early voting. That dispute was potentially going to reach the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal of a lower court ruling that early voting restrictions violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But now, it appears that won’t happen after the two sides reached a settlement in the case. Cleveland.com has more:

A settlement for a voting rights lawsuit filed Friday in federal court will preserve a ban on the so-called “Golden Week” but will establish evening and Sunday hours for early voting for several weeks before next year’s presidential election and through 2018.

The settlement, announced by Secretary of State Jon Husted and by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, ends a court fight launched last year by the ACLU on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and several African-American churches.

This appears to be a classic example of both sides giving in order to get – and for now both sides are happy:

“Ohioans are the winners here,” said Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. “Thousands rely on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot in an election. This settlement restores Sunday and evening hours in all 88 counties, meaning more voters will have a better chance to actually vote.”

Husted, too, championed the settlement.

“This agreement is a victory for Ohio voters. With the issues that accompany the 2016 presidential election drawing nearer it is important that we resolve these lingering questions now. Ohio has been and will remain a state where it is easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

The trade, quite simply, is this: activists get expanded early voting hours (including weekends and evenings) and the Secretary of State gets to keep uniformity and eliminate the one-week “golden week” overlap between voter registration and early voting:

The settlement specifies that the secretary of state can set uniform hours across the state. That is something Husted has insisted on, arguing that voters should have the same opportunities to cast early ballots, regardless of which county they live in.

“One of my primary goals is to ensure uniformity in Ohio elections so that every voter in this state is treated equally and fairly,” Husted said in the announcing the settlement. “Today we are preserving that uniformity for all Ohio voters while maintaining ample opportunity to cast a ballot and participate in the democratic process.”

But it also locks in Sunday voting hours for the two weeks prior to the presidential election and a gradual expansion of evening hours on weekdays.

In 2016, Sunday voting will be available during the third week of early voting, as well as the fourth. Boards of elections will be open from 1 to 5 p.m.

Weekday evening voting will be available during the presidential primary election and general elections until 7 p.m., instead of just during regular business hours.

Some issues remain; most notably, smaller counties who had lobbied against extended early voting will now likely seek help in funding those hours.

Two other larger notes: first, this settlement takes the case off the table for the Supreme Court – which isn’t necessarily bad news for plaintiffs given how expansively the lower court interpreted the Voting Rights Act – an interpretation that may have been a bridge too far for the Court. And second, elimination of the golden week will likely ramp up activists’ push for the enactment of online voter registration championed by Husted – which could in turn cause opponents in the Legislature to “dig in” for fear that it will tilt the partisan balance of the electorate.

Still, it’s encouraging to see the Secretary and activists arrive at a mutually-acceptable compromise that looks like it will benefit Buckeye State voters. Of course, this is Ohio – so stay tuned for the next election dispute … because there’s likely to be one!

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