Ohio settles civil rights groups' lawsuit over early voting

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Posted: Apr 17, 2015 1:17 PM
Ohio settles civil rights groups' lawsuit over early voting

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Civil-rights groups settled their legal dispute with Ohio's elections chief on Friday over actions that trimmed early voting opportunities in the political battleground state.

The agreement between Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and the Ohio Chapter of the NAACP and other plaintiffs maintains elimination of the so-called "golden week" in which individuals could both register and vote, but adds weekend and evening voting hours, even in areas of the state that previously hadn't offered them.

The lawsuit had challenged two early-voting provisions. One was a directive by Husted that established uniform early-voting times that in some cases restricted existing polling opportunities. Another was a GOP-backed law that eliminated golden week.

Plaintiffs argued voting-law changes hurt low-income, black voters disproportionately. The state argued the organizations couldn't prove an illegal undue burden was placed on black voters.

The settlement retains a uniform statewide voting schedule in all 88 Ohio counties, as Husted wanted, but expanded the hours and days he had laid out. The schedule will hold for the remainder of Husted's four-year term, which began in January, and, under the deal, can't be legally challenged.

Husted, a Republican, called the agreement a victory for Ohio voters.

"One of my primary goals is to ensure uniformity in Ohio elections so that every voter in this state is treated equally and fairly," he said in a statement. "Today we are preserving that uniformity for all Ohio voters while maintaining ample opportunity to cast a ballot and participate in the democratic process."

Freda Levenson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, agreed the settlement will benefit Ohio voters.

"We are very happy today," she said. "This isn't just a restoration of lost opportunities. It's an expansion of opportunities for all Ohioans."

Specifically, the settlement allows the following early voting opportunities:

— For the 2016 presidential general election, provides an additional Sunday during the third week of voting, with election boards open 1 to 5 p.m.;

— For the 2016 presidential primary election and general elections, expands weekday evening hours to 7 p.m. during the fourth week of voting;

— For regular municipal elections, primary elections and special elections, expands hours during the fourth week of voting for weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on the Saturday before the election, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The settlement dismisses a federal lawsuit in which the U.S. Justice Department had sided with the plaintiffs, saying in a court filing that the voting measures unfairly affected minority voters.

Its provisions take effect after the May primary.

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Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.