Why the Ohio Early-Voting Ruling Matters — in 2016

The Supreme Court's ruling in an Ohio voting case underscores partisan fights over state early-voting laws.

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The U.S. Supreme Court says Ohio residents can't start voting tomorrow, blocking without comment a ruling that would have given seven extra days of early balloting leading up to the November 4 election.

But the real impact of the decision probably won't be felt this year as much as it will in 2016.  That's because there isn't much drama in Ohio these days.  Republican Gov. John Kasich is headed for a landslide re-election in five weeks. There isn’t a U.S. Senate election in the state, and none of the state’s 16 House members has a highly competitive race, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s latest ratings.

It's a different story for 2016, when Ohio probably will be among the top five battlegrounds in the presidential election. And in competitive races, Democrats tend to take advantage of early voting, piling up leads that Republicans must overcome on election day.

Ohio instituted early voting after the 2004 election, when there were exceptionally long waits at the polls in the state that clinched Republican George W. Bush’s re-election over Democrat John Kerry.  

Here's a timeline of what happened:

  • In February, Kasich signed into law a bill that required the state's early voting period to begin the day after the state's voter-registration deadline, which this year is Oct. 6. Previously, there was a five-day period, known as "golden week," during which citizens could register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.
  • In May, minority groups sued the state, saying the new rules hurt blacks and other minorities by reducing their chances to vote.
  • Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered state election officials to reinstate a golden week running from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, saying that its elimination would disproportionately affect African-Americans and the poor.
  • Last week, a federal appeals court upheld that ruling.

The Supreme Court technically put those rulings on hold. Given the immediacy of the Nov. 4 election, though, the Court's action has the practical effect of reinstating the limits Kasich signed into law.

Ohio election officials say the state already offers one of the nation's most permissive early voting schedules. "Ohioans have more access to voting than any of our bordering states,” according to a publication from the office of the state’s top election official, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.


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