COLUMBUS, Ohio - A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked an Ohio law that scales back early voting, ordering the state's elections chief to set additional voting times just ahead of the fall election.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Peter Economus comes in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups, several predominantly black churches and others challenging two early voting measures in the perennial presidential battleground state.
One is a directive from Secretary of State Jon Husted that established uniform early voting times and restricted weekend and evening hours. Another is a law that eliminates golden week, when people could both register to vote and cast ballots. Without those days, early voting would typically start 28 or 29 days before Election Day instead of the prior 35-day window.
Voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting on Nov. 5, 2012.
Ohioans can vote absentee by mail or in person.
The plaintiffs claimed the new rules would make it difficult for residents to vote and disproportionately affect low-income and black voters, who, the groups say, are more likely to use the weekend and evening hours to vote early in elections. They said low-income voters are more likely to rely on public transportation, making it difficult to get to a polling location on a lunch break. The black churches in the lawsuit have offered parishioners a ride to the polls after Sunday services to vote early.
The state had argued the organizations couldn't prove the rules illegally placed an undue burden on voters. State attorneys said the changes would cut costs for local elections boards and help prevent fraud because same-day registration and voting doesn't give boards enough time to properly verify registration applications.
The judge sided with the plaintiffs, who include the Ohio chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, and said the measures were unconstitutional and in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In granting the group's request for a preliminary injunction, Economus characterized the measures' burden on voting as "significant although not severe."
The judge said that having decided to enact a broad early voting system, "Ohio and Secretary Husted may not capriciously change or implement that system in a manner that disproportionately burdens the right to vote of certain groups of voters."
Under the judge's order, early voting would begin Sept. 30 instead of Oct. 7. The ruling directs Husted to require boards to set expanded evening hours and adds another Sunday to the state's early voting schedule this fall. The judge also blocked Husted from preventing boards from adopting additional early voting hours beyond his order.
Husted criticized the decision as inconsistent.
"We must appeal this ruling because we can't simultaneously treat people the same and differently," Husted said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised the outcome during a news conference in Washington, saying it "represents a milestone" in the Justice Department's effort to protect voting rights. The department had sided with the plaintiffs in the case.
Freda Levenson, managing attorney for ACLU of Ohio, said the state's early voting opportunities are key to residents with inflexible work schedules or other responsibilities that prevent them from getting to a polling place during regular business hours.
"This ruling means voters will not see their access to the ballot compromised during the upcoming election," Levenson said.
Economus set the next hearing in the lawsuit for Dec. 3.