Access to political participation in the United States has always been contested. The extensions of voting rights from only property owners, to include all white men, then people of color, and finally women, are now regarded as important milestones in the deepening of the democratic process in this country. And while some will label these previous restrictions as products of a less enlightened era, the struggle for broader enfranchisement continues.
In February, the Ohio legislature passed Senate Bill 238, eliminating the first week of in-person absentee voting. Known as Golden Week, it was the only time when people could register and vote on the same day. For many people without a regular permanent address, or for those who move frequently, Golden Week represented their best opportunity to be heard in the political process. This opportunity was eliminated because legislators claimed it could lead to voter fraud, yet no one could give any evidence that this had been a problem for the near-decade Golden Week has been around. Instead, lawmakers removed one of the available points of access for some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.
That same month, Secretary of State John Husted also issued a directive eliminating voting on all Sundays, the Monday before Election Day, and all evening voting hours. Secretary Husted claimed this directive established fairness and uniformity among all Ohio counties. Unfortunately, his directive amounted to a race to the bottom, where opportunities for voters were cut rather than expanded. Equality should never be achieved by cutting access for others, but instead by raising everyone up.
The times cut by Husted’s directive are utilized by primarily low-income voters and voters of color. They provide access for those whose jobs prevent them from voting during traditional hours, and those who want to vote with their church community on Sundays. These voices belong in our political decision making and should not suffer because of politicians gaming the system.
In May, the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to strike down the new law and directive from the Secretary of State. The ACLU brought the complaint on behalf of the Ohio Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and several African- American churches. Recently, in a related case, U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus issued an injunction preventing Secretary Husted from cutting voting on the three days before future elections. The ACLU’s litigation remains in front of the court, and we will continue to advocate for Golden Week and for additional weekend and evenings hours to create a fair and accessible voting system. With continued pressure from people and organizations committed to a robust, inclusive democratic process, Ohio can be a place where everyone can participate and have their voices heard.
As part of this critical role defending and expanding freedoms in the state of Ohio, the ACLU is hosting our 2014 Biennial Conference on Saturday July 26th. As well as discussing voting rights for people with disabilities and formerly incarcerated individuals, the conference will hold workshops on criminal justice, zero tolerance policies, free speech, privacy and the death penalty. Visit www.acluohio.org/conference for details.
American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio