By Randy Ludlow
WASHINGTON - Providing barely 16 hours’ notice, the U.S. Supreme Court has delayed early voting in Ohio that had been scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. today. Instead, early, in-person voting will begin a week from today, as originally set by state officials, and consist of nearly 30 percent fewer hours than ordered by a federal judge earlier this month.
WASHINGTON -- Providing barely 16 hours’ notice, the U.S. Supreme Court has delayed early voting in Ohio that had been scheduled to begin at 8?a.m. today.
Instead, early, in-person voting will begin a week from today, as originally set by state officials, and consist of nearly 30 percent fewer hours than ordered by a federal judge earlier this month.
In a 5-4 vote yesterday afternoon, the court’s Republican-appointed conservatives granted state officials’ request to block the judge’s order restoring cuts in early voting made by the GOP-controlled Ohio General Assembly.
GOP officials hailed the ruling as a victory for state rights in setting uniform voting hours, but voting-rights groups lamented the loss of early-voting opportunities seen as largely benefitting blacks and the poor.
Voting at county boards of elections ahead of the Nov. 4 election now will proceed under the challenged state law. Gone are the more-generous voting hours ordered this month by U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus and upheld last week by a federal appeals court.
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted’s restored voting directive will provide 197 hours of early voting, including 16 weekend hours and no evening hours.
The now-set-aside ruling by Economus created 259 hours, including 24 hours each of weekend and evening voting. Economus also restored the now-vanished “Golden Week,” when Ohioans could register to vote and cast ballots at the same time on weekdays between today and Monday’s registration deadline.
The nation’s high court blocked Economus’ order for 90 days until the justices can hear the state’s arguments on whether the law is constitutional, which experts said will not come until after the Nov. 4 statewide election.
Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, represented the law’s opponents -- the Ohio NAACP, the Ohio League of Women Voters and a few black churches that had temporarily won more voting hours.
“For many, it is their only chance to cast a ballot during an election. While (yesterday’s) order is not a final ruling on the merits, it will deprive many Ohioans of the opportunity to vote in the upcoming election as this case continues to make its way through the courts,” Ho said.
Husted claimed a victory for his belief that “elections in Ohio should be run by the same rules in every county and Ohioans should have the right to make those rules through their elected representatives.”
His lawyer, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, said, “This was an important ruling for protecting all Ohioans’ rights through their elected representatives to determine the state’s voting schedule rather than have the federal courts determine that schedule for them.”
Democratic candidate for governor Ed FitzGerald said the court’s action “makes it even more difficult for thousands of middle-class families across the state of Ohio to make their voices heard this November.”
Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, feared “this last-minute decision will cause tremendous confusion among Ohioans about when and how they can vote” and could lead to voters showing up and being turned away today.
In his decision, Economus concluded that a Republican-crafted state law reducing early-voting opportunities unconstitutionally and disproportionately affected blacks and the poor in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The state contended that the “injunction is unfair to elections officials and the public. Officials have been planning all year for a different calendar. Officials must now go back to processing registrations during early voting.”
Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- all appointees of Democrat presidents -- would have upheld Economus’ ruling. The five conservative justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito -- granted the stay.
Edward Foley, a professor of law at Ohio State University, said the conservative justices sent ” a strong signal” that they believe the Ohio law probably is constitutional. “It’s unfortunate that you have that 5-4 split because it would have been nice if it could be more consensus across ideological lines,” Foley said. “But it was not to be.”
Dispatch Reporter Jessica Wehrman contributed to this story