Legislature's request denied in voting case

ANN SANNER Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS (AP) -- A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request from the Ohio Legislature to become part of a lawsuit challenging early voting rules in the key swing state.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly had sought to be among the lawsuit's defendants, which include the state's attorney general and elections chief. Attorneys argued that lawmakers had a right to defend the statutes they enact.

But U.S. District Judge Peter Economus said the General Assembly failed to convince the court that its position differed from the current defendants. He also questioned the timing of the legislature's request to intervene, saying it came more than two months after the lawsuit was filed in May.

"The General Assembly has offered no reason justifying this delay," Economus wrote.

Attorneys have asked the judge to reconsider, saying they have complied with the court's schedule.

Jason Mauk, the Ohio Senate's chief of staff, said GOP leaders worked in consultation with the attorney general on their filing. He noted the lawsuit came as lawmakers wrapped up their spring voting sessions.

"We felt that the General Assembly was best suited to defend the constitutionality of the law that we enacted and the attorney general supported that decision," Mauk said in an interview.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, along with predominantly black churches and the Ohio Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It specifically challenges two changes to the state's early voting rules this year.

One is a directive from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted that set uniform, early voting times that included limits on weekend and evening hours. The other is to a bill passed this year by the GOP-led General Assembly that shortens the period by six days when voters can cast an early ballot. Instead of 35 days, the early-voting window would be 29. The law eliminates the days in which people could both register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time.

The voting rights and civil rights groups claim that the recent early voting changes will make it difficult for residents to vote and unfairly affect black voters. They are seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law from being enforced this fall and want Husted to issue a new schedule that includes weeknight hours and additional Sunday times. The judge has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 11 on the request.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Justice Department sided with the plaintiffs in the case, saying in a court filing that the voting measures unfairly affect minority voters.

Under Husted's schedule, Ohioans will have two Saturdays and one Sunday to vote in person, along with weekday hours this fall. They can also vote by mail at any time during the early voting period. Husted has defended the hours as a bipartisan solution because they were proposed by an association of Republican and Democratic county elections officials.

Husted's attorneys have said in court documents that the elections chief's directive treats all voters the same.

"Neither plaintiffs nor the voters they represent can demonstrate that they are completely unable to vote by any of the multitude of options available to them, including voting by mail or having a family member drop off their application and their ballot to the (board of election)," his attorneys wrote.

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