By Darrel Rowland
In a pair of court decisions that could help Donald Trump, Ohioans' voting rights were pared back Tuesday for the 2016 presidential election.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court panel's 2-1 ruling throwing out Golden Week, the period in which Ohioans could both register to vote and cast an early ballot.
Several hours later a separate but equally divided panel of that same Cincinnati-based appellate court largely upheld restrictions enacted by the GOP-dominated legislature in 2014 and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich.
All that reshaped the Ohio electoral landscape to one less favorable to minority and Democratic voters -- and thus presumably more to Trump's liking.
"It is disappointing that partisan voting restrictions, which have been proven to disenfranchise minority voters, are being allowed to continue in Ohio," said state Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.
Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges disputed that view, saying, "Despite misleading rhetoric from Democrats, all Ohioans have equal opportunities to vote under the law."
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine, said, "I think that these rulings on the margins hurt Democrats, but I don't think that's the right way to look at these cases. I would ask: Do these laws significantly burden voters, and if they do, did the state offer good reasons for doing so? On that question, the results are a mixed bag."
Hasen pointed out the deep division on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel Tuesday.
"No one paying attention will fail to notice that the majority opinion was written by two white, Republican-appointed judges, while the dissent was written by 94-year-old Damon Keith, an African American judge appointed by Jimmy Carter," the professor wrote on his election law blog.
"I expect that we will see a petition for review before the entire 6th Circuit in this case, which is a more likely path to reversal than before a 4-4 Supreme Court."
On the Golden Week dispute, the separate appeals court panel also had split along party lines, with two judges picked by GOP presidents rejecting the week, and one chosen by a Democratic president favoring it.
But the Supreme Court's one-sentence ruling Tuesday on that earlier decision contained no such partisan or racial overtones, since there was no dissent from any of the eight justices on the short-handed court to throwing out Ohio Democrats' appeal. The matterl had been filed with Justice Elana Kagan, who referred the matter to the full Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Jon Husted said the high court made the right call.
"This issue has been dragged through multiple courtrooms over the course of several years and every time, it has been sent back with the same message: Ohio's laws are fair and constitutional," he said.
In a statement released by liberal group ProgressOhio, Gabriel Sanchez, a principal at Latino Decisions and political science professor at the University of New Mexico, defended Golden Week.
"Political science research has consistently found that policies like the Golden Week that make access to voting easier for voters increases turnout particularly for lower resourced populations who tend to vote Democrat," Sanchez said. "The inability of voters to register and vote simultaneously will therefore have the potential to impact the outcome of the 2016 race in one of the key battleground states that could ultimately decide who will become our next president."
After Golden Week was eliminated in February 2014 by GOP state lawmakers and Kasich, Democratic Party organizations of Ohio, Cuyahoga County and Montgomery County sued Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine, both Republicans.
In May, Judge Michael H. Watson of U.S. District Court in Columbus ruled the two and-a-half year old law violated both the U.S. Constitution and federal Voting Rights Act, primarily because it disproportionately affected African Americans. The appointee of President George W. Bush said the fact that Ohio's early voting period is more generous than most other states' is legally irrelevant.
But the two majority members of the appellate panel said last month the elimination of Golden Week "results, at most, in a minimal disparate burden on some African Americans' right to vote."
The bottom line of Tueday's appeals court ruling is that Ohioans' absentee votes should count even if they aren't quite accurate in filling out a form asking for their address and date of birth. Such a requirement for "technical precision" creates an "undue burden" on voters.
But the majority of the panel rejected other challenges to voting laws by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and other groups.
In an emotional dissent, Senior Judge Keith wrote, "Democracies die behind closed doors. By denying the most vulnerable the right to vote, the majority shuts minorities out of our political process.
"Rather than honor the men and women whose murdered lives opened the doors of our democracy and secured our right to vote, the majority has abandoned this court's standard of review in order to conceal the votes of the most defenseless behind the dangerous veneers of factual findings lacking support and legal standards lacking precedent.
"I am deeply saddened and distraught by the court's deliberate decision to reverse the progress of history."
(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)