FitzGerald to challenge Ohio’s early voting rules

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, right, speaks about protecting voter rights at a news-conference at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections  Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in Cleveland. Ohio's decision Wednesday eliminated early voting on Sundays and only permits it for two Saturdays during the general election. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, right, speaks about protecting voter rights at a news-conference at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in Cleveland. Ohio's decision Wednesday eliminated early voting on Sundays and only permits it for two Saturdays during the general election. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND (AP) – Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald, the leader of the state’s largest county and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said Thursday that he plans to challenge a new Ohio law that bars county elections boards from mailing unsolicited, absentee-ballot applications to voters in the political swing state.

Absentee ballots allow Ohio voters to cast an early ballot by mail or in person. They do not have to give a reason.

FitzGerald said he plans to introduce legislation in the county’s council next month that asserts its home-rule authority to ensure the applications could be sent to voters in the county, which includes Cleveland.

Last week, Republican Gov. John Kasich signed into law a bill allowing the secretary of state to send the applications for general elections assuming the Legislature approves money for it. Other public officials would be banned from doing so.

Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, accused FitzGerald of being “quick to jump at political opportunities at the expense of Ohio voters.”

The law’s GOP supporters say the change helps achieve fairness and consistency across county lines. But voter advocates and Democrats argue that not every county is the same.

Ohio’s larger, urban counties traditionally have sent voters the applications without residents requesting them.

Residents in Cuyahoga County have been getting the unsolicited applications since 2006, said the county’s law director, Majeed Makhlouf. “Our voters became very accustomed to this way of voting,” he said.

FitzGerald also laid the groundwork Thursday for potential legal action over the state’s early voting hours.

Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, issued a directive this week setting the hours and days that voters can cast early ballots in person this fall. Ohio voters will get two Saturdays but no Sundays or evenings to cast in-person, absentee ballots. It’s based on a plan from the bipartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials.

Husted’s office said the secretary of state supports the “fair and equal treatment” of all the state’s voters.

FitzGerald directed Makhlouf to seek voter data from six urban counties to analyze whether the new times would have a disproportionate impact on minorities and people who live in certain neighborhoods.

Public records request were being sent Thursday by Makhlouf’s office to elections boards in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery, Lucas, and Summit. FitzGerald also announced the creation of a volunteer task force of seasoned election lawyers to help the Law Department in its efforts.

“Governor Kasich and Secretary Husted’s actions will make it harder for working men and women to cast their votes this November,” FitzGerald said in a statement.

The Ohio NAACP on Thursday also criticized the new rules for absentee ballots and schedule changes to early voting.

“Cuts to early voting are a calculated attempt to limit the participation of potential voters during Ohio’s election period, specifically voters in communities of color who disproportionately account for early votes in key counties like Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Lucas, Franklin, and Montgomery,” Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, said in a written statement.

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