Early Voting Takes a Hit in Two States

absentee ballotsEarly voting is at the heart of the latest controversies in voting access. In Wisconsin, the state Senate is considering a law that would abolish weekend early voting, and Ohio has passed a law that abolishes “Golden Week,” when voters can register and vote at the same time.

The Wisconsin law was designed to “level the playing field” between urban and rural communities. Larger cities, with greater resources and demand, often keep election offices open after hours and/or on weekends to receive early voters. Under the new law, during the two-week early voting period, voting would be limited to a total of 45 weekday hours. Opponents cite the impact on voters, and accuse the bill’s backers of political motivations. “The bill would reduce opportunities to cast a ballot for voters who have daytime jobs, daytime classes, elder and child care or frequent travel obligations,” said Mary Kae Nelson, of the League of Women Voters. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett believes that “they [Republican legislators who supported the bill] don’t want communities where there are a lot of Democrats to be able to come and vote early.”

Ohio’s law, passed Feb. 21st, shortens the early voting  period, eliminating the week of overlap between early voting and registration known as “Golden Week.” The measure is designed to create a “clean break” between when voters can register and when they can vote. Supporter Rep. Mike Dovilla called the measure a “common-sense election reform.” Summing up the arguments of many opponents, Rep. Dan Ramos said, “Explicitly or implicitly, this bill disenfranchises those among us who have historically been most disenfranchised.”

Whether the bills represent necessary housekeeping or a political power grab, the impact on voter behavior on Election Day will be the true test of their importance. In the meantime, any laws that reduce the ease of voting will continue to come under intense scrutiny by legislators and voting rights groups.

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