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Judge orders expanded early voting in Ohio

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 9:24 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked an Ohio law that scales back early voting, ordering the state's elections chief to set additional voting times just ahead of the Nov. 4 general election.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Peter Economus comes in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups; several predominantly black churches; and others challenging two early-voting measures in the perennial presidential battleground state.

One is a directive from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted that established uniform early-voting times and restricted weekend and evening hours. Another is a GOP-backed law that eliminates golden week ­— when people can both register to vote and cast ballots. Without those days, early voting would typically start 28 or 29 days before Election Day instead of the prior 35-day window.

Ohioans can vote absentee by mail or in person.

Under Economus' order, early voting would begin Sept. 30 instead of Oct. 7. His ruling directs Husted to require boards to set expanded evening hours and adds another Sunday to the state's early-voting schedule. The judge also blocked Husted from preventing boards from adopting additional early-voting hours beyond his order.

The plaintiffs claimed the measures would make it difficult for residents to vote and disproportionately affect low-income and black voters — who are more likely to use the weekend and evening hours to vote early in elections.

They said low-income voters are more likely to rely on public transportation, making it difficult to get to a polling location on a lunch break. The black churches in the lawsuit offered parishioners a ride to the polls after Sunday services to vote early.

The state argued the organizations couldn't prove the rules illegally placed an undue burden on voters. State attorneys said the measures would cut costs for local elections boards and help prevent fraud because same-day registration and voting don't give county elections boards enough time to properly verify registration applications.

The judge sided with the plaintiffs, which include the Ohio chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. He said the measures are unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In granting the group's request for a preliminary injunction, Economus characterized the measures' burden on voting as “significant, although not severe.”

Husted criticized the decision as inconsistent.

“We must appeal this ruling because we can't simultaneously treat people the same and differently,” he said.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised the outcome during a news conference in Washington, saying it “represents a milestone” in the Justice Department's effort to protect voting rights. The department had sided with the plaintiffs in the case.

Freda Levenson, managing attorney for ACLU of Ohio, said the state's early voting opportunities are key to residents with inflexible work schedules or other responsibilities that prevent them from getting to a polling place during regular business hours.

“This ruling means voters will not see their access to the ballot compromised during the upcoming election,” Levenson said.

Economus set the next hearing in the lawsuit for Dec. 3.

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