Federal judge hearing dispute over Ohio’s voting rules

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Attorneys representing Ohio Democrats in a legal dispute over changes to the swing state’s voting laws said Monday that a federal judge should strike down the adjustments because their burden on voters outweighs any benefit to the state.

But lawyers for the state claim the voting changes were minor and argue that Ohio offers many opportunities for its residents to vote.

At issue in the case are a series of Republican-backed changes that Democrats allege disproportionately burden minority voters and those who lean Democratic. Among the policy changes was elimination of a week of early voting in which Ohioans also could register to vote, known as “golden week.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Watson heard opening statements in the trial that began Monday and is expected to stretch into next week. The case is being tried before Watson instead of a jury.

The case also challenges rules related to absentee and provisional ballots, and limitations to in-person, early voting locations. Democrats want Watson to block the policies from being enforced.

The state’s Republican elections chief Jon Husted, a defendant in the case, contends Ohio’s system of voting is fair and says the lawsuit is politically motivated.

Attorneys for Husted and the state say the case is about “incredibly minor adjustments” to voting laws.

“Plaintiffs’ theories rest on the notion that once a State chooses to expand voting options, it cannot make later adjustments or reductions, no matter how minor,” the state’s attorneys say in a recent court filing. “Accepting this one-way-street approach would make any State wary of expanding voting options.”

Democrats argue the series of changes amount to placing barriers in front of the party’s voters, particularly minorities. Their attorneys say justifications for the adjustments are weak.

“The General Assembly knew that the challenged provisions would disproportionately burden groups of voters who tend to vote for Democrats, and one of the challenged provisions was directly aimed at practices designed to help voters in ‘urban’ – and thus Democratic – counties,” the attorneys say in court documents.

The lawsuit was filed in May, shortly after Husted reached a deal in April with the Ohio chapter of the NAACP and other civil rights groups in a separate, long-running dispute over early voting. That case had challenged the early voting hours that Husted set and the elimination of golden week.

The settlement in the NAACP case expanded the early voting times, but did not reinstate golden week.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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