The battle over voting rights in the courts saw a victory this week when a federal trial court struck down an Ohio law eliminating “Golden Week” — during which voters could register and cast a ballot all in one trip during the state’s early voting period — ruling it discriminates against African Americans.
Ohio is one of nine states with major ongoing litigation that could impact voting access before November — and one of 17 states with new restrictive laws in place for the first in a presidential election in 2016. With Ohio likely to appeal the ruling, the fight will continue in the Buckeye State.
We already know that early voting is a popular reform that makes casting a ballot more accessible across the board. Most election officials are also fans of early voting, because it leads to shorter lines on Election Day, as well as reduced stress on voting systems and poll workers. Same-day registration, in which voters have an opportunity to both register to vote and cast a ballot, is likewise popular among voters and boosts participation rates.
While the benefits of such election reforms are well-established, the question at issue in the Ohio case, The Ohio Organizing Collaborative v. Husted, is whether the state discriminated against African-American voters by eliminating same-day registration and a week of early voting after creating these opportunities eight years earlier.
In the 2004 presidential election, Ohioans faced long lines and other election problems, prompting the state to enact a host of election reforms, including a substantial early voting period. Because the first week of early voting fell before the state’s registration deadline, the legislation also created de facto same-day registration, earning the “Golden Week” nickname thanks to the opportunity for one-stop registration and voting.
The Ohio legislature voted to eliminate Golden Week after the 2012 election, however, ditching same-day registration and reducing the number of early voting days. This lawsuit, and others filed in response to the law, argue that the cutbacks violate the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, because both reforms were disproportionately used by black voters.
After a 10-day trial featuring a host of experts and witnesses on both sides, the trial court agreed with those challenging the law. The court noted that more than 60,000 citizens voted early during Golden Week in the 2008 presidential election, and over 80,000 did so in 2012. Expert and anecdotal evidence showed a disproportionate number of them were African Americans. One expert presented strong statistical support that black voters were 3.5 times more likely than white voters to vote during Golden Week in 2008 and five times more likely in 2012. Additional evidence showed that in 2008, more than 19 percent of African Americans voted early, compared to only 6.2 percent of white voters. In 2012, the ratio was similar, 19 to 9 percent.
On same-day registration, the court found that more than 10,000 people, disproportionately African Americans, registered and voted in one trip in each of the last two presidential elections. Experts explained that same-day registration is particularly helpful for voters with time, resource, and transportation constraints, and black Ohioans are more likely than white Ohioans to face such constraints. Same-day registration was also used heavily by voters who had recently moved and needed to update their address for voting purposes, and evidence presented in court showed African Americans move with greater frequency than other Ohioans.
Because the state was unable to persuade the court that the burdens these cutbacks placed on the right to vote for black voters were justified by state interests such as preventing fraud (which experts testified was vanishingly rare) or cost savings (which were minimal), the court held that the law eliminating Golden Week was unconstitutional. The court also held that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because the discriminatory impact of the law could be traced to longstanding discrimination against black voters in Ohio, and interacted with such discrimination to make it harder for these voters to participate in the political process when compared to other Ohioans.
There are eight other pending court cases in which restrictions on the right to vote are being challenged. On the same day the Ohio opinion was issued, the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in a lawsuit challenging Texas’s strict photo ID law, which three federal courts have already held is discriminatory against blacks and Latinos. A recent decision by a trial court in North Carolina on that state’s omnibus restrictive election law has been appealed, and will be heard by the Fourth Circuit in June. Laws in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Virginia also face pushback in the courts.
These appellate decisions are more important than ever, because the Supreme Court is down to eight justices. To see what new restrictions voters will face when they go to the polls this November, keep an eye on the appellate courts this summer.