All Ohio counties will have uniform times for in-person early voting this fall, and no county boards of election will offer weekend hours, Secretary of State Jon Husted announced Wednesday.
Husted said all county boards must be open for voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays for the first three weeks of the period (Oct. 2 through Oct. 19), and must be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays for the last two weeks before the election (Oct. 22 through Nov. 2).
The election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The ruling is not related to the Obama campaign’s lawsuit against Husted in which arguments were heard on Wednesday in U.S. District Court. The Obama campaign lawsuit is to reinstate Ohio’s in-person early voting for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the election. Republican legislators eliminated that voting via a 2011 bill.
Democrats estimate 93,000 Ohioans cast in an in-person ballot on those days in the 2008 presidential election. Judge Peter C. Economus will issue a ruling, although the date is not certain.
For voters in Miami and Clark counties, the Husted ruling means more hours to vote in-person at their boards of election, as those counties had not planned any extra hours beyond 4 or 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
Voters in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Butler counties will have fewer hours. Boards of election in all four of those counties had already approved weekend voting, ranging from two days in Greene and Warren counties, to four days in Montgomery and Butler counties. Those schedules are now cancelled, and residents will have 10 to 17 fewer hours of in-person early voting in those four counties.
Matt McClellan, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said Husted talked to boards of election from small, medium and large counties around the state, and “the consensus that he could arrive at was that having longer hours during the week would be the best assistance to them, would be the most helpful, as compared to weekends.”
Husted said his focus was on “leveling the playing field” among Ohio counties when it came to voting access. He made the same argument earlier this year, when he decided that he will send an absentee ballot application to every Ohio registered voter, rather than having a patchwork of policies among counties on that issue, too.
Prior to Husted’s ruling Wednesday, each county could dictate its own hours policy for in-person voting.
Four of Ohio’s largest counties — Cuyahoga, Franklin, Summit and Lucas — had deadlocked on that issue along party lines. Husted, a Republican, is the tiebreaking vote in those situations, and he denied extra hours, citing counties’ budget constraints and saying there “is sufficient time already available” for absentee voting.
But those four counties traditionally vote heavily Democratic, and there was a national backlash from Democrats who said Republican-dominated counties would have more opportunity to vote than Democratic-leaning counties.
The Ohio Senate’s Democratic Caucus sent Husted a letter this week saying the voting hour disparity “defies the fundamental values of our democracy and raises suspicion that our voting system is being manipulated for partisan advantage.”
The conflict on early voting involves issues of money, fairness and Election Day efficiency. Many small counties that don’t have large lines on Election Day don’t see any need to spend money for extended early voting. But some large counties are willing to spend on overtime because increased early voting makes it less likely that they’ll have the long lines and angry voters that have haunted some past Election days. Having different policies for these different counties can cause strife, especially if one party or demographic feels it’s being disenfranchised.
“I think we can all agree that voters need to be treated the same way … as best you can,” said Greene County deputy director of elections Llyn McCoy, a Democrat. “But sometimes one size doesn’t fit all. I think you have to take into account, sometimes, counties’ individual situations.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called Husted’s decision “a step in the right direction,” but added that “many voters will still have difficulty getting to the polls early without weekend access to early voting.”
Steve Quillen, the Republican elections director in Miami County, disagreed, saying he had been hoping for a single, uniform policy. He said the combination of in-office voting from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2, and the state’s decision to mail every voter an absentee ballot application in September, should solve any concerns about it being too hard to vote.
“They’ve got 35 damn days, so get here to vote,” Quillen said. “I’m sorry, but they can’t make it within 35 days?”
Montgomery County elections director Betty Smith, a Republican, said she understands that there has to be some consistency statewide due to litigation. But she said the in-person voting may be a smaller issue than some people realize, pointing out that since 2008, mailed absentee ballots have outnumbered in-person early votes in Montgomery County by nearly a 3-1 ratio.
Mitt Romney’s campaign did not issue a statement on Husted’s ruling and did not return messages seeking comment. Jessica Kershaw, Ohio press secretary for President Obama’s campaign, said of the ruling, “We will continue working to ensure that every Ohioan has the opportunity to have their voice heard in every way possible while building the state’s largest grassroots campaign.”