By Darrel Rowland
A federal court ruling Tuesday declaring Ohio GOP lawmakers' voting restrictions unconstitutional could easily wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court -- and generate a 4-4 split decision, a voting-rights expert says.
With high-stakes voting cases also working their way through courts in such states as Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin, "There is sorely a need for clarification" of how the U.S. Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act should be applied, said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine.
But with the high court operating down one member, the status of election law could remain fractured among conflicting federal appeals court rulings for the 2016 presidential election, he said.
Judge Michael H. Watson of U.S. District Court in Columbus said the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature violated the federal constitution and Voting Rights Act in 2014 when it reduced the state's early voting period from 35 to 28 days. The move also eliminated the so-called Golden Week in which eligible residents could register to vote and cast an absentee ballot at the same time.
Even though Ohio's early voting period is among the most generous in the nation, the reduction disproportionately affected African Americans, Watson ruled.
The judge noted that blacks took advantage of Golden Week 3 1/2 times as often as white voters in 2008, and more than 5 times as often in 2012.
"Based on this evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the reduction in overall time to vote will burden the right to vote of African Americans, who use (early in-person) voting significantly more than other voters," Watson said in a 120-page opinion.
The legislature's stated justifications for the cutback -- reducing fraud, trimming costs, avoiding voter confusion -- were weak, said Watson, former chief counsel to Republican Gov. Bob Taft. Watson ordered Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine -- the defendants in the case -- to stop enforcing the shortened voting period.
A DeWine spokesman said the decision -- which sided with the state on many issues -- will be appealed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Husted said in a release that "for nearly 200 years, Ohioans voted for only one day. 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."
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, said, "I am pleased that the federal court has affirmed what we knew all along -- that the elimination of the same day voter registration was an unconstitutional restriction on our most basic democratic right that disproportionately affected minority voters in Ohio."
Although the effect was a racial disparity in Ohio's voting system, the groups bringing the lawsuit did not prove that the legislature and Husted acted "in order to disenfranchise minority voters," Watson said. He also rejected several other challenges brought in the suit, pushed by the Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic parties in Cuyahoga and Montgomery counties.
State Democratic Chairman David Pepper called the ruling "an enormous win for Ohio voters" and chastised Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Husted and other Republicans for ongoing efforts to compromise Ohioans' right to vote.
"It's a shame that once again our legislature, governor, attorney general and secretary of state cannot figure out how to abide by the constitutional rights of their own voters. The judge found no merit in any of their justifications for the burden they placed on African American voters. How many losses in court, and how many wasted tax dollars, are going to convince them to respect Ohioans' right to vote?"
When asked if Golden Week voters could make a difference in this year's presidential election, Pepper replied, "In a very close race, it could actually change the outcome of an election."
Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.
(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)