A deal announced today by Ohio's Secretary of State may help avoid some of the legal nightmares that plagued the Buckeye State's 2014 elections. While the legal settlement [PDF] restores some of the early voting access Republicans have been attempted, for years, to impose, it also leaves other rollbacks to voting reforms passed after the state's 2004 Presidential nightmare in place.
MSNBC's Zach Roth explains the agreement between Ohio's Republican Sec. of State and the ACLU, which had sued on behalf of the Ohio NAACP and League of Women Voters last year to block new GOP cuts to polling place access:
Both sides hailed the new agreement --- hopefully ending a years-long, roller-coaster legal battle --- as a victory for voters, though Roth added on Twitter that the deal, overall, seemed to be more of a victory for the GOP than for voting rights advocates. Elections expert Daniel Smith is a bit more optimistic about it today, noting that it's "a much bigger deal to have extended hours" and Sunday "Souls to the Polls" voting restored, even as the ACLU, for its part, concedes the settlement is "far from perfect"...
As Roth explains:
In February 2014, Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law that eliminated the week of same-day registration. Known as "Golden Week," it had been established after all-day lines at the polls in 2004 made Ohio the poster child for voting problems. Soon afterward, Husted followed up by eliminating all Sunday voting, which had the effect of ending the "Souls to the Polls" drives that many black churches undertake. Husted also required that weekday voting end at 5 p.m.
In the 2012 election, 157,000 Ohioans --- disproportionately minorities --- voted on the days that were cut.
Specifically, the agreement adds a Sunday of early voting, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., for presidential elections. That means that next fall there will be a total of two Sundays of early voting, since a district court judge last year reinstated voting on the Sunday directly before the election.
The deal also extends weekday voting hours during the final week of primary and general elections by two hours, until 7 p.m. Evening hours are especially useful for people who work low-wage jobs and often have trouble taking time off to get to the polls. And the agreement adds a Saturday of early voting --- something some but not all counties had previously offered.
Last year, the attempted cuts to voting access passed by the Buckeye State's Republican legislature, signed by its Republican Governor and enforced by its Republican Sec. of State, faced a roller coaster battle in the federal courts.
As Roth mentions, the history of the fight stretches back for years. After the Republican Sec. of State J. Kenneth Blackwell oversaw (many would say caused) impossibly long lines at Ohio polling places during the 2004 Presidential race, largely in Democratic-leaning areas (the last vote was cast around 3am on Wednesday morning at Kenyon College that year), the state legislature instituted early voting and other reforms which eased access to the polls on Election Day, including one week in which voters could both register and vote. That became known as "Golden Week". Those reforms helped voters a great deal and, in 2008, few had problems voting in Ohio under the state's then Democratic Sec. of State Jennifer Brunner.
Once Republicans retook the statehouse and the Secretary of State's office, they began rolling back the post-2004 reforms, but were repeatedly blocked on many of them by the federal courts in 2012 and again in 2014.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the lower District Court ruling that overturned the Republican attempts to roll back early voting in 2014, finding the new GOP scheme that truncated early voting hours by nixing evening voting hours during the week, on Sundays and during "Golden Week" was in violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
Despite those rulings by both the District and Appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, overrode both at the last minute before the 2014 elections, issuing a stay to the lower court orders under the premise that the court rulings were issued too close to the election to change the existing rules.
That temporary SCOTUS decision sent the matter back to Ohio to be litigated this year, and today's announced settlement is the latest --- if not the last --- result of the ACLU's initial lawsuit hoping to stop the state Republicans' attempt to make it more difficult for all voters in the Buckeye State to participate in their own democratic elections.
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