Lawyers argue early-voting rollbacks are illegal

By Randy Ludlow The Columbus Dispatch • Monday August 11, 2014 12:34 PM

Lawyers squared off before a federal judge this morning to argue whether state officials have illegally rolled back early voting opportunities for African Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

A lawyer for the National Association for Advancement of Colored People of Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio argued it was “no accident” that ruling Republicans cut back voting hours ahead of the statewide election on Nov. 4.

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Lawyers for Gov. John Kasich and Secretary of State Jon Husted countered that Ohio has not curtailed blacks’ chances to vote, but instead offers the “ninth most-liberal voting system in the nation.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has waded into the lawsuit with a filing that contends a law passed by GOP lawmakers and a directive from Republican Husted make it more difficult for blacks to vote.

The NAACP, League of Women voters, three black churches and others are asking U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus of Columbus to grant a preliminary injunction forbidding the state from reducing voting hours.

State lawyers urged Economus to not grant an injunction, arguing there was no evidence that the state has illegally restricted early voting in a manner that disproportionately harms black voters.

The state, in early voting changes from 2012, eliminated evening hours and some weekend hours and killed the so-called “golden week” in which Ohioans could register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time.

Sean Young, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project in New York City, argued that evidence shows that blacks use in-person early voting more than whites and that any reduction harms their right to vote.

African Americans cast early, in-person votes at twice the rate of whites in 2010 and three times as much in 2012, he said. Blacks “want to see their votes actually cast (instead of voting by mail) ... it’s empowering,” Young said.

Assistant Ohio Attorney General Kristopher Armstrong, representing Kasich and Husted, stressed that the NAACP and other defendants have not factually proven their claim that state law discriminates against blacks.

He stressed that Ohio offers its residents many more voting opportunities than in most states with 188 hours of early voting while other states such as Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania offer in-person voting only on Election Day.

However, Young countered that the case is not about comparing Ohio to other states, but rather whether it has illegally restricted voting opportunities on which blacks have come to rely. About 157,000 Ohioans cast early, in-person votes in 2012.

Economus took the lawyers’ arguments under advisement and will decide later whether to grant an injunction to block the state’s early-voting scheme.