During the 2004 election, Ohio had the longest lines to vote in the country, with five-hour waits in heavily Democratic cities like Cleveland and Columbus. A post-election report for the DNC estimated that 3 percent of Ohioans—174,000 people—left their polling places without voting, a larger number than George W. Bush’s 118,000 vote margin of victory in the Buckeye State.
“The Election Day experience for most African American voters was starkly different from that of most white voters in Ohio,” the pollsters Cornell Belcher and Diane Feldman found. African Americans waited an average of 52 minutes to vote, while the wait for white voters was only 18 minutes. Twice as many black voters reported experiencing problems at the polls.
In response to the long waits, Ohio adopted 35 days of early voting after 2004. Early voting was widely popular and widely used during the 2008 election. Perhaps too widely used for Ohio Republicans, who dramatically cut the number of early voting days following Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine,” explained Doug Priesse, the chairman of the Republican Party in Columbus.
Federal courts eventually restored much of the early voting days, but the Ohio GOP still successfully eliminated the first week of early voting, when voters could also register and vote at the same time, known as “Golden Week.” Today, in a major victory for voting rights, a federal court restored the Golden Week period of early voting and same-day registration, which will make it easier for tens of thousands of Ohioans to cast a ballot in 2016. During the 2012 election, 80,000 people voted during Golden Week and 14,000 registered and voted on the same day.
Judge Michael Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, found that cutting early voting “results in less opportunity for African Americans to participate in the political process than other voters,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the 14th Amendment. He noted “usage rates of [early voting] were far higher among African Americans than among whites in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.” According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 nearly 20 percent of African-American voters in Ohio voted early, and only 9 percent of whites.
The decision in Ohio stands in start contrast to recent rulings by Republican-appointed judges in states like Virginia and North Carolina upholding new voting restrictions like voter-ID laws, cuts to early voting, and the elimination of same-day registration. The battle for voting rights will be waged largely in the courts in 2016.
Of the 17 states with new voting restrictions in place for the first time this presidential cycle, nine are being challenged in court, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Just today, the full US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit heard a new challenge to Texas’ voter-ID law—the strictest in the country, which has already been struck down three times under the VRA. The Fourth Circuit appeals court will hear an appeal to the decision upholding North Carolina’s voting restrictions on June 21. Virginia Republicans are challenging Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to 200,000 ex-felons. In Ohio, there’s a separate lawsuit alleging that Secretary of State Jon Husted purged 2 million voters from the rolls. And on it goes.
This kind of uncertainty is confusing for voters and bad for democracy. It’s a result of too many states making it harder to vote and the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.
Despite today’s victory in Ohio, the courts cannot be counted on to reliably protect voting rights. Today 58 members of Congress launched the first ever Congressional Voting Rights Caucus to urge Congress to restore the VRA. “The Supreme Court 2013 ruling that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act set in motion what many feared: the subjection of minorities, seniors, and low-income Americans to unfair, punitive barriers preventing them from exercising their most basic right as American citizens,” said the group’s founder, Texas Representative Marc Veasey.