The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Ohio's elections chief over limits to when voters can cast an early ballot in the perennial battleground state.
Ohioans can vote early by casting an absentee ballot by mail or in person before Election Day without giving any reason. About 33 percent of those who voted in the 2012 presidential election cast absentee ballots.
The lawsuit filed in Columbus federal court claims that recent cuts to when early voting can take place will make it difficult for tens of thousands of residents to vote and will unfairly affect black voters, who the groups say are more likely to use weekend and evening hours to vote early in elections.
Freda Levenson, managing attorney for the ACLU of Ohio, told reporters at a news conference that voting should be designed for the convenience of voters and not a strategy piece for politicians.
"The cuts that we're challenging in this lawsuit eliminated hours that were disproportionately used by lower-income voters, by African American voters, by single parents, by working voters," Levenson said. "So these were not across-the-board cuts. These were cuts that had disproportionate impact on certain classes of voters."
Secretary of State Jon Husted and his fellow Republicans who dominate the Legislature have stressed that residents still have plenty of time to vote. They argue the changes help achieve fairness and consistency across the state's 88 counties and benefit boards of elections.
Local boards of elections previously set early voting hours, creating a patchwork of times across the state. Without a directive from Husted, they would be free to set their own hours.
Husted spokesman Matt McClellan said voting in Ohio is easy, and opponents should instead sue states with no early voting hours.
"It's ironic that Secretary Husted is being sued for treating all voters equally and for supporting a bipartisan voting schedule that gives Ohioans an entire month to cast ballots," McClellan said in a written statement.
The fall early voting schedule set by Husted includes two Saturdays, but no Sundays or evening hours.
Several predominantly black churches and the Ohio chapters of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP have joined the ACLU in its lawsuit challenging Husted's directive on early voting hours.
The churches in the lawsuit have offered their parishioners a ride to the polls on the Sunday before Election Day. They contend that such "Souls to the Polls" programs have special meaning within their communities and are being destroyed by the new voting schedule.
Husted has defended the hours as a bipartisan solution, because they were proposed by an association of Republican and Democratic county elections officials. He has pressed state lawmakers for the past three years to put the hours and days for early voting into law, but the Legislature has not adopted any plan.
The groups also want to overturn a Republican-backed law that eliminated the so-called golden week, a period when residents could both register to vote and cast an early ballot at the same time. Without those days, early voting typically starts 29 days before Election Day.
Sean Young, an ACLU attorney, said should the groups prevail, voters would have a 35-day window to vote early and county election boards could set their own in-person, early voting hours.