By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday ordered Ohio to restore a week to its early voting period before the November general election, ruling that a state law that cut the days violated the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
Ohio must reinstate a full 35 days of early in-person voting, which includes what is called a "golden week" where residents can register to vote and cast early ballots on the same day, U.S. District Court Judge Peter Economus ruled.
Ohio established the early voting period in 2005 in response to lengthy waiting times at the polls during the 2004 general election, especially in urban areas. Ohio is expected to be a pivotal state again in the 2016 presidential election.
The Republican-controlled state legislature in February approved a law that truncated the period to 28 days from 35, eliminating the early part of the period that had allowed people to register and cast ballots the same day.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted also issued uniform early voting hours that went farther, excluding multiple Sunday and all evening voting hours on weekdays.
Husted said he would appeal the decision.
"Today's ruling kicks the door open to having different rules for voting in each of Ohio's 88 counties, which is not fair and uniform and was not even acceptable to this court or the plaintiffs previously," Husted said in a statement.
The judge's ruling would enjoin Husted from preventing county election boards from adding more hours than required by the order.
The Ohio Chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and a number of churches filed a lawsuit challenging the changes, saying they would suppress turnout by minorities and the poor.
Groups supporting the legislation have said that eliminating "golden week" would help reduce voter fraud and shortening early voting hours would reduce costs by 20 percent.
Supporters of keeping early voting unchanged said African Americans made up 78 percent of all early in-person, or EIP, voters in 2008.
"African Americans in Ohio are more likely than other groups to utilize EIP voting in general and to rely on evening and Sunday voting hours," Economus wrote.
As such, he found, plaintiffs have demonstrated a strong likelihood the legislation and directive from the secretary of state would "result in fewer opportunities for African Americans to participate in the electoral process."
Early voting in Ohio is scheduled to start on Sept. 30.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by David Bailey and Andrea Ricci)