COLUMBUS -- Voting rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit Thursday hoping to force the state to allow more days and hours for eligible residents to cast early ballots.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed the challenge in U.S. District Court on behalf of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, several churches with predominantly black congregations and others.
The plaintiffs want to overturn a Republican-backed law change that eliminated "golden week," the period when voters could cast ballots and register in the same day.
They also want to undo a directive from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted setting uniform early voting days and hours and eliminating polling on Sundays and evenings in advance of the November general election.
"We are here today to stand up for the rights of all Ohio voters, regardless of their political party, regardless of their income, age or race," said Freda Levenson, managing attorney of the ACLU of Ohio.
In February, lawmakers finalized and Gov. John Kasich signed Senate Bill 238, which called for early in-person voting to begin the day after voter registration ends.
Proponents have said the change is needed to give county election officials time to verify voters' eligibility before they are allowed to cast ballots. But opponents, including Democratic lawmakers, believe it's a further attempt to limit early voting and make it harder for eligible resident to cast ballots.
The law change will not take effect until after the primary.
Also in February, Husted issued a directive setting early voting hours for the primary and general elections.
For the latter, weekday voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting on Oct. 7. Boards will be open for early voting from 8 a.m.to 4 p.m. for two Saturdays -- Oct. 25 and Nov. 1.
Husted has said the directive will set uniform early voting hours statewide, ensuring all voters an equal opportunity to cast ballots. He also has said the hours are supported by bipartisan elections officials, absent action by lawmakers to codify early voting periods.
Husted and others have noted repeatedly that Ohio voters have 29 days to cast ballots, unlike other states with no early voting period. Eligible Ohioans also can mail ballots from home or head to the polls for 13 hours on Election Day.
In response to Thursday's lawsuit, Husted's spokesman, Matt McClellan, offered, "The ACLU is targeting the wrong state, because by every objective measure, Ohio has expansive opportunities to vote. … The ACLU would be better served to focus on states like New York or Delaware or Michigan or Kentucky, where there's no early voting at all. The fact is it's easy to vote in Ohio, and the plaintiffs 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."
But voter advocates and Statehouse Democrats say Republican election law changes and Husted's early voting directive will make it harder for low-income, minority, disabled and elderly Ohioans to participate in elections.
The lawsuit filed Thursday notes that more than 157,000 voters cast ballots on days or at times that have been eliminated under SB 238 or Husted's directive.
"The effects of these changes will be felt most keenly among lower-income voters who are predominantly African-American, causing them to have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice, resulting in the denial or abridgment of the right of African-Americans in Ohio to vote...," according to the suit.
The legal challenge has the support of two Democratic lawmakers who have been outspoken in their criticism of recent election law changes.
"It is truly unfortunate that voting advocates must again turn to litigation to secure equal access to a basic right," Sen. Nina Turner (D-Cleveland), who hopes to unseat Husted in November, said in a released statement. "Early voting has been working in Ohio, and no compelling reason has been presented to support rolling it back."
Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) added in a statement, "Early voting has also become an essential part of running smooth elections. In the time Ohio has adopted and expanded early voting, Election Day precincts have dropped from 11,571 in 2004 to 9,316 in 2012. With such big cuts to voting access, Ohio's readiness for future major elections is in jeopardy."
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at email@example.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.