Should the decision stand, residents will again have a 35-day window to vote early by mail or in person before Election Day.
It hasn’t been a particularly friendly few weeks for voting rights activists.
Less than a month removed from a federal judge finding North Carolina’s controversial Voter ID Law to be constitutional, and just a week after Missouri voted in favor of a constitutional amendment with similar requirements, recent decisions from federal judges regarding voting have proven to be a stark reminder that voter suppression legislation in the post-Voting Rights Act era is significantly easier to pass and be subsequently upheld in a court of law.
The plaintiffs, the Ohio State Democratic Party and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative – a coalition of labor unions, faith organizations, and other community organizing groups – had filed the suit in response to sharply curtailing the number of early voting days, which they feel would exert a disproportionate impact on African American, Latino, and low-income voters.
Among the policies ruled unconstitutional were the elimination of a week of early voting in which Ohioans were also still eligible to formally register to vote – known as the “Golden Week” – along with removing the most convenient days and times for those unable to take time off to vote.
U.S. District Judge Michael Watson sided with the plaintiffs on these claims, saying that “statistical and anecdotal evidence” was presented reflecting that black voters use same-day voter registration and early voting options at higher rates than whites.
He added that even though the court cannot predict how African Americans and other minority voters will turn out in future elections, “it is reasonable to conclude from this evidence that their right to vote will be modestly burdened.”
Should the ruling stand, Ohioans would once again have a 35-day window to vote early by mail or in person before Election Day.
While this ruling is almost certain to be appealed, law professor at University of California Irvine and election-law expert Rick Hasen notes that the circuit it would appeal up to has typically fought vigorously in defense of voting rights.
As The Atlantic notes, this decision isn’t just important in the ceaseless fight for civil rights; it very well could alter the course of the 2016 presidential election.
It could also affect the course of the 2016 presidential election. Ohio is expected to be an important swing state, as usual, and one that could determine whether Donald Trump’s ability to win over disaffected voters angry at free trade or resentful of declining white majorities can hand him the election. Senator Rob Portman’s bid for reelection against Ted Strickland is also expected to be a tight race.
Studies have consistently found that tools like early voting and same-day registration help to improve minority voting rates. In Ohio, some Republicans have admitted as much. In 2012, a GOP official in Franklin County defended cuts to weekend and evening voting, telling The Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.”
For now, a momentary and much-needed victory in a critical swing state.