Ohio settles civil rights groups' lawsuit over early voting

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COLUMBUS, Ohio-- Civil-rights groups settled their legal dispute with Ohio's elections chief on Friday over actions that trimmed early voting opportunities in the political battleground state.

The agreement between Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and the Ohio Chapter of the NAACP and other plaintiffs maintains elimination of the so-called "golden week" in which individuals could both register and vote, but adds voting opportunities on multiple Sundays and during evenings.

The lawsuit had challenged two early-voting provisions. One was a directive by Husted that established uniform early-voting times and restricted weekend and evening hours. Another was a GOP-backed law that eliminated golden week.

Plaintiffs argued voting-law changes hurt low-income, black voters disproportionately. The state argued the organizations couldn't prove an illegal undue burden was placed on black voters.

The settlement retains a uniform statewide voting schedule, as Husted wanted, but expanded the hours and days he had laid out.

Husted, a Republican, called the agreement a victory for Ohio voters.

"One of my primary goals is to ensure uniformity in Ohio elections so that every voter in this state is treated equally and fairly," he said in a statement. "Today we are preserving that uniformity for all Ohio voters while maintaining ample opportunity to cast a ballot and participate in the democratic process."

Freda Levenson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, agreed the settlement will benefit Ohio voters.

"Thousands rely on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot in an election," she said in a statement. "This settlement restores Sunday and evening hours in all 88 counties, meaning more voters will have a better chance to actually vote."

Specifically, the settlement allows the following early voting opportunities:

-- For the 2016 presidential general election, provides an additional Sunday during the third week of voting, with election boards open 1 to 5 p.m.;

-- For the 2016 presidential primary election and general elections, expands weekday evening hours to 7 p.m. during the fourth week of voting;

-- For regular municipal elections, primary elections and special elections, expands hours during the fourth week of voting for weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on the Saturday before the election, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The settlement dismisses a federal lawsuit in which the U.S. Justice Department had sided with the plaintiffs, saying in a court filing that the voting measures unfairly affect minority voters.

Its provisions will go into effect after the May primary.