By Marc Kovac
and David Skolnick
A federal appeals court reversed a lower-court decision, undoing the reinstatement of Ohio’s Golden Week and blocking eligible residents from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day.
The 2-1 decision Tuesday from a panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, calling Ohio “a national leader when it comes to early voting opportunities.”
Judge David W. McKeague, writing for the majority, noted that the legislation that eliminated Golden Week two years ago still afforded “abundant and convenient opportunities for all Ohioans to exercise their right to vote” and was “well within the constitutionally granted prerogative and authority of the Ohio Legislature to regulate state election processes.”
The legislation called for early voting to begin the day after voter registration ended, reducing the absentee voting period by six days. During those six days, unregistered people were able to walk into county board of elections offices, register and then vote during the same visit.
Golden Week would have started Oct. 6. Oct. 11 is the last day to register for the fall election. Early voting starts Oct. 12, the day after the registration deadline and 29 days before the Nov. 8 election.
Mark Munroe, chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party, who is also the board of elections’ chairman, said, “Ohio has some of the most-generous voting opportunities of any state in the United States.”
He added that being allowed to register and vote at the same time could cause some confusion to people who may believe they could register after the Oct. 11 deadline.
When asked if that was ever a problem in Mahoning County, Munroe said, “I’m not aware of a specific case where that’s an issue.”
Munroe said there needs to be “some reasonable limits on when you can vote.”
Munroe said he would prefer to restrict early voting to two weeks before the election because allowing it to occur earlier “certainly complicates life for candidates trying to attract voters” through mail and TV and radio commercials, and voters could come to regret casting an early ballot if something bad “breaks late in the campaign” and they can’t change their vote.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Watson reinstated Golden Week, ruling the legislation eliminating the extra early voting time hurt black voters in particular – saying “it is reasonable to conclude from this evidence that their right to vote will be modestly burdened” – and was unconstitutional.
The appeals court reversed that decision Tuesday, ruling that Ohio “continues to provide generous, reasonable and accessible voting options to all Ohioans.”
David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, who also is vice chairman of the county board of elections, said, “This is yet another attempt by the GOP to restrict voting rights for people of color. It was proved in the trial court that [eliminating Golden Week] had a disproportionate effect on people of color.”
According to the majority decision, “The issue is not whether some voter somewhere would benefit from six additional days of early voting or from the opportunity to register and vote at the same time. Rather, the issue is whether the challenged law results in a cognizable injury under the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. We conclude that it does not.”
Husted praised the decision, saying, “Ohio offers a generous number of days, hours and ways to vote – making us one of the easiest states in which to cast a ballot.”
The law to eliminate Golden Week was signed by Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, in early 2014 and went into effect later that year.
Proponents said the change was needed to give county election officials time to verify voters’ eligibility before they cast ballots and to reduce potential voter fraud.
But opponents, including Democratic lawmakers, called it a further attempt to limit early voting and make it harder for eligible residents to cast ballots. The Ohio Democratic Party and others subsequently filed suit.
David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said, “We are disappointed with the circuit court panel’s decision [Tuesday], and we are examining our next steps to ensure Golden Week is restored.”