COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Despite a previous court order, a voter referendum and legislative repeal, Ohio again has restricted early voting, and it’s aimed at reducing minority turnout, the NAACP says in a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit targets state Senate Bill 238, a 2014 law that eliminated the first week of the five-week early voting period in Ohio, an important swing state during national elections. This was the only week that allowed same-day registration and voting.
The lawsuit also seeks to strike down Secretary of State John Husted’s 2014 directive to eliminate Sundays and evening hours from the early voting period, in addition to the Monday before Election Day. That directive is called Directive 2014-16.
“These reductions in early voting and registration opportunities will significantly impact thousands of voters, especially African-American voters,” the complaint states.
This is not Ohio’s first go-round with laws criticized for suppressing turnout from minorities and the poor. In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law eliminating the last three days of early voting before Election Day. Voters responded by organizing a ballot referendum to strike the law down. The Legislature then repealed it.
In 2012, Husted issued a directive cutting the same three days of early voting for nonmilitary voters. After a federal lawsuit, Husted was forced to restore the extra days.
Joined as plaintiffs by three churches, the League of Women Voters, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and a community organizer, the new 35-page lawsuit claims the state’s latest law is specifically aimed at suppressing turnout from poor and black voters, and would in fact disproportionately affect them.
“A motivating purpose behind SB 238 and Director 2014-16 was to suppress the turnout and electoral participation of African-American voters, who disproportionately vote early and use same-day registration,” the complaint states. “SB 238 and Directive 2014-16 will be successful in effectuating that purpose.”
Named as defendants are Husted and Attorney General Mike Dewine.
Ohio established early voting in response to the congestion and “severe waits” voters faced during the 2004 presidential election, which effectively denied many citizens the right to cast their ballots, the NAACP says in the complaint.
“Many voters were forced to wait in line for two to 12 hours, and in at least one polling location, voting did not finish until 4 a.m. the day after Election Day. Thousands of voters left their polling places without voting because of school or work obligations, family responsibilities, or because a physical disability prevented them from standing in line. A survey found that approximately 130,000 would-be Ohio voters left before casting a ballot in the 2004 general election due to excessively long wait times on Election Day,” the complaint states.
Ohio established no-fault absentee voting in 2005, eliminating the need for absentee voters to have an excuse for not voting on Election Day.
“Ohioans heavily utilize early voting opportunities, and African Americans in particular rely heavily on early in-person voting, the use of which has skyrocketed since the introduction of no-fault absentee voting in 2005 and shows no sign of abating,” the complaint states.
In the 2008 and 2012 general elections, Ohioans cast 512,000 and 580,000 early in-person absentee ballots, respectively. In 2012, more than 157,000 voters – many of whom were low-income or African-American – cast ballots on days that have now been cut, according to the complaint.
“African-American voters are much more likely than white voters to vote in person during the early voting period, including during the weeklong same-day registration period, during the evening hours, and on Sundays. From 2006 until 2010, according to the Current Population Survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau, African Americans voted early in-person at nearly twice the rate of white voters, and then exceeded that rate in 2012,” the complaint states.
The NAACP attributes this to lower-income and single-parent voters being unable to take paid time off of work to vote during regular business hours, transients needing to be able to register and vote at the same time, and African-American church communities encouraging and helping with Sunday voting, among other things.
“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,” the Rev. Dale Snyder of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus said in a statement released. Bethel is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“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 in Ohio. “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.”
In response to the lawsuit, Husted’s spokesman Matt McClellan said that the NAACP and its attorneys with the ACLU should be focusing its efforts on states like New York, Delaware or Michigan, where there is no early voting at all.
“It’s ironic that Secretary Husted is being sued for treating all voters equally and for supporting a bipartisan voting schedule that gives Ohioans an entire month to cast ballots,” McClellan said.
“The ACLU is targeting the wrong state because by every objective measure, Ohio has expansive opportunities to vote. Jon Husted has been a leader in that effort. As speaker, he pushed for the adoption of no-fault absentee voting. When he became secretary of state, he implemented an online change of address system and has continued to fight for full online voter registration. He’s the first secretary of state to send out absentee ballot applications statewide and he is the first secretary of state to ensure all voters, no matter what county they live in, have the same opportunities to vote in the month leading up to the election.”
McClellan added that the ACLU and NAACP “should be joining Secretary Husted in making sure all voters know their voting options rather than trying to scare them into believing it’s hard. That’s the real voter suppression.”
The NAACP disagrees. After pointing out that “historic African-American turnout” in 2008 helped elect the nation’s first black president, “Ohio officials reacted swiftly – often through unorthodox methods – by repeatedly ramming through measures to cut back early voting, with full awareness of the impact that such measures would have on African-American voters. These sometimes ham-fisted attempts eventually culminated into SB 238, which passed the Legislature after a series of unusual and unprecedented procedural measures were used to minimize debate and prevent many ameliorative measures from even coming to a vote, including an amendment that would have simply required defendant Husted to assess the impact of SB 238 on African Americans. These maneuvers also included the literal silencing of an African American state senator by the speaker’s gavel as she explained the impact the SB 238 would have on African Americans, and occurred in the context of public comments from elected officials about the ‘urban – read African American – turnout machine.’ Numerous testimony on the impact of SB 238 on African Americans was also presented. The passage of SB 238 was swiftly followed by Directive 2014-16, banning early voting during evening hours and on Sundays, as well as the Monday before Election Day. The directive was issued with full awareness of the likely impact on African Americans as thoroughly litigated in the OFA lawsuit, issued in clear violation of state statutes, and issued in the context of public comments from elected officials about have to ‘cater’ to ‘that group of people’ who vote on Sundays.”
The NAACP seeks declaratory judgment that the law violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection, and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It wants enforcement of the law and the directive enjoined.
Lead counsel is Freda Levenson with the ACLU of Ohio’s Cleveland office.
Co-counsel includes members of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project in New York City, and the NAACP’s Baltimore office.
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