COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A law trimming early voting in Ohio is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a case involving a series Republican-backed voting changes in the presidential battleground state.
The state's Democratic Party was among the plaintiffs that sued Ohio's elections chief over the voting rules.
The challenged policies included the elimination of a week of early voting in which Ohioans could also register to vote — a period known as golden week. Democrats alleged the changes disproportionately burdened black voters. The state argued the changes were minor and that Ohio residents had many opportunities to vote.
U.S. District Judge Michael Watson sided with Democrats on their golden-week claim, ruling that the cut violates the Voting Rights Act and voters' equal protection rights.
Watson said statistical and anecdotal evidence presented in the case reflects that black voters use same-day voter registration and early voting options at higher rates than whites. While the court can't predict how African-Americans will turn out in future elections, he said, "It is reasonable to conclude from this evidence that their right to vote will be modestly burdened" by the law.
The state plans to appeal the decision, a spokesman for Ohio's attorney general said.
More than 60,000 people voted during golden week in 2008, while over 80,000 cast ballots during the period in 2012, Watson noted in his decision.
Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper called the ruling "a win for the voters," who won't have to make two trips to register and vote.
Plus, he said during a conference call, "You're talking about the number of votes that can frankly make the difference in an election."
The state had said that scrapping the days helped alleviate administrative burdens for local elections officials while reducing costs and the potential of fraud.
"The Court finds that these justifications do not outweigh the burden imposed," Watson wrote.
Should Watson's decision stand, Ohio residents would again have a 35-day window to vote early by mail or in person before Election Day.
The judge sided with the state on other challenged policies in the case, including restrictions on the number of early voting locations and rules for absentee ballot mailings.
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said he was pleased to see many of the existing laws upheld, but expressed disappointment in the golden-week ruling.
"If it was constitutional for lawmakers to expand the voting period to 35 days, it must also be constitutional for the same legislative body to amend the timeframe to 28 days, a timeframe that remains one of the most generous in the nation," Husted said in a written statement.
Because of the law and other schedule changes, Ohio voters were expected to have three fewer days to vote in person this presidential election year compared with the 2012 presidential election.
Pepper said he was still reviewing the other aspects of the decision.
The lawsuit was filed last May, shortly after Husted reached a deal with the Ohio chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights groups in a separate, long-running dispute over early voting. That case had challenged the early voting hours that Husted set and the elimination of golden week.
The settlement in the NAACP case expanded the early voting times but did not reinstate golden week.