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Early Voting Lawsuits Center On Key Swing State Of Ohio


It's a high-stakes presidential election year and that means lawsuits in the key swing state of Ohio over who gets to vote and when. For member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze has more.

M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Betsy Heer spent her birthday in November 2004 standing in a cold rain in the tiny town of Gambier, Ohio, waiting 10 and a half hours to vote.

BETSY HEER: It was exhausting, and it was exciting. And it was frustrating, and it was all those things. But it was definitely democracy in action.

SCHULTZE: And in nearly every election since, Heer has opted instead to vote early. The reason she can is an overhaul of Ohio's early voting laws spurred by what one judge called the disastrous 2004 election. The changes help make Election Day smooth, but they've also created a cycle of laws and lawsuits that make courts in Ohio a big player in the national debate over voter access.

NED FOLEY: They know how to ski in Colorado. We know how to litigate elections in Ohio.

SCHULTZE: Ned Foley, director of Ohio State University's election law program has followed the battles over rejected ballots, weekend hours, purging voters and eliminating same-day registration and voting.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted is a defendant in nearly all of the cases and outraged about it.

JON HUSTED: I led the effort to expand the voting period to 35 days.

SCHULTZE: Husted was speaker of the Ohio House in 2005 when lawmakers facing the threat of a voter initiative decided to allow early voting with evening and weekend hours and a golden week to register and vote simultaneously.

HUSTED: And I'm still a great supporter of early voting, and I believe as an administrator of elections, it really helps us.

SCHULTZE: The problem Husted maintains is that the issue belongs in state legislatures, not federal courts.

HUSTED: Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals - they all have different opinions. And that's great, but ultimately you have to come to some middle ground.

SCHULTZE: But what he sees as middle ground, including eliminating golden week in exchange for expanded night and weekend hours, challengers see as an attempt to discourage poor, young Hispanic and African-American voters.

Kathleen Clyde is a Democratic legislator who's challenged a range of GOP changes.

KATHLEEN CLYDE: All of these little changes make a big difference when it comes to the accessibility for Ohioans to their democracy.

SCHULTZE: And just in the last two weeks, two federal judges have agreed. The first ordered of Ohio to reinstate golden week because African-American voters are as much as five times more likely to use it. The second told the state to stop throwing out ballot forms for technical problems such as missing ZIP codes.

Ohio is appealing both decisions, saying they don't give the state credit for having one of the longest voting periods in the country. One of the judges addressed that saying once a state expands voting, it can't cut back in ways that discriminate. Ohio State elections expert Foley says ironically that logic could discourage other states from expanding voting.

FOLEY: Their legal counsel is going to have to advise them before you ever take any step to be expansive, you better be certain that it's what you want because the minute you try to tweak it or readjust, you're vulnerable to a lawsuit.

SCHULTZE: Meanwhile, voting battles continue in Ohio while on other fronts, including the purging of voters who don't cast ballots in any of six consecutive years.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Praise the Lord.

SCHULTZE: At St. Paul's AME church in Akron, voting means a lot. Pastor Bruce Butcher, a plaintiff in one lawsuit says he was elated by the court victories. But as he was traveling this week, reality set in.

BRUCE BUTCHER: I know that this is just one battle in the ongoing war in the state of Ohio for everyone to have an opportunity to vote.

SCHULTZE: And as long as Ohio is a key battleground state, everyone expects the war to continue beyond November 8. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.