By Trevor Boeckmann
AFJ Dorot Fellow
At 8:00 a.m. this morning, Ohio residents were supposed to be able to go to the polls to begin early voting for November’s general election. Ohio’s policies had been a voting success story of the past decade. In 2004, long lines that stretched into the early morning led to as many as 130,000 voters being turned away from or leaving the polls. The Ohio legislature, responded with reforms designed to expand voting times, days, and registration opportunities. By 2008, 1.7 million Ohioans—nearly 30 percent of the state’s voters—were casting their ballots before Election Day.
But yesterday, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court shut down today’s early voting.
Large early voting turnout in Ohio meant more low-income and minority voters, most of whom were voting for Democratic candidates. Ohio Republicans began to question the earlier reforms. In 2014, the Ohio legislature enacted a new set of voter suppression laws designed to cut back on early voting and voter registration opportunities. Earlier this month, both a federal district court judge and a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals enjoined the law to prevent it from being enforced this year. The state’s attorney general filed a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court. Late yesterday afternoon, the appeal was granted by the Court’s conservative wing: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. There will be no early voting in Ohio today.
The changes Ohio is implementing have one purpose and one purpose only: to make it harder for minorities and poor people to vote. The Sixth Circuit saw through this sham. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court majority has chosen to weigh in on the side of voter suppression.”
The most incredible part of both the state’s appeal and the Court’s ruling is the fact that early voting imposed no burden on the state. State officials had already set up the voting locations, provided staff, and promoted the opportunity across the state. The Court’s ruling will not save Ohio taxpayers a dime; it will only confuse voters.
The Ohio case is just the first of a spate of new challenges to restrictive voting laws set to go into place for November’s election. In Wisconsin, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a strict new voter identification law. Today, 300,000 Wisconsinites lack the photo IDs they will need to vote on Election Day. More than 12,000 absentee ballots already have been mailed without instructions telling voters they will now need to send a photocopy of their photo ID in order to have their votes counted. Last week, by a 5-5 vote, the entire 10-member Seventh Circuit court declined to review the decision.
In North Carolina, a decision is pending in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals over an expansive new law that would:
● Reduce early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration;
●Institute new photo ID requirements;
●Discard the ballots of voters who accidentally show up at the wrong precinct;
●Eliminate the ability of election boards to extend poll hours during “extraordinary circumstances” such as long lines;
●End voter registration for 16 and 17 year olds.
Election law scholar Rick Hasen called the law “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.”
Kansas and Arizona are trying to enact new voter ID laws that require proof of citizenship. A decision on their legality is currently pending before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Texas, a trial ended last week in a federal district court case over another voter ID law.
The stakes in these cases could not be higher. Since the Supreme Court invalidated section 5 of the Voting Rights Act last year in Shelby County v. Holder, states freed from that law’s “preclearance” requirements have aggressively imposed new restrictions designed to suppress voter turnout, particularly in poor and minority communities. And this is just the beginning. With the 2016 presidential election looming, these cases will set the baselines for new restrictive voting laws that could be proposed across the country. It is imperative that the courts—and Congress—act to protect the most important right in our democracy. It is a shame the Supreme Court decided not to do so in Ohio yesterday.