COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal judge in Ohio is weighing arguments over the impact of early-voting changes in the presidential battleground state, as civil rights groups and voting rights organizations seek to block recent restrictions from being in place this November.
Ohioans vote absentee by mail or in person without giving any reason. The lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Peter Economus challenges two early-voting revisions.
One is a directive this year from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted that set uniform, early voting times that included restrictions on weekend and evening hours. The other is a bill passed by the GOP-led General Assembly in February that shortens the early voting window. Instead of 35 days, the period would typically be 29 or 28 days. The law gets rid of a so-called "golden week" when people could both register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time.
The state argued Monday that plaintiffs, including the Ohio chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, cannot prove the changes illegally place an undue burden on black voters.
"I think plaintiff would have a hard time arguing that under one of the most liberal voting regimes in America, the political process is not open to all Ohioans," Steven Voigt, the state's attorney, argued.
Plaintiffs argued that Husted's order and the February legislation cut into voting opportunities that were being used by Ohio's low-income and black voters.
Attorney Sean Young cited studies and court decisions affirming black voters use in-person early voting and same-day registration more than whites, and black churches extensively used golden week. For Ohio, the findings required a statistical analysis because the state doesn't track voters by race.
"This case is not about a hypothetical middle- or upper-class person — and that probably describes everyone here — this case is about low-income voters, and plaintiffs have produced overwhelming evidence of the reality they face in their day-to-day lives," he said.
Opponents of the restrictions seek 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.
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. And Republican backers of the law say even with a handful of days cut, there's still plenty of time for Ohioans to vote.
Young said, "Uniformity does not justify the elimination of hours across the board. It just as easily justifies adequate hours across the board."
The state said if Economus sides with plaintiffs it would create a system where a state could expand its voting opportunities but could never contract them.
The judge's decision is expected by the end of August.
The U.S. Justice Department has sided with the plaintiffs in the case, saying in a court filing that the voting measures unfairly affect minority voters.
The General Assembly is seeking in federal appeals court to be among the lawsuit's defendants.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.