CLEVELAND (AP) — Cuyahoga County voters will decide in November whether to approve a charter amendment that county officials hope will provide them with more authority to file lawsuits to stop or overturn restrictions on voting rights.
County council approved a measure to put the amendment on the ballot by an 8-3 vote, with council's three Republicans dissenting. The measure was sponsored by Councilwoman Sunny Simon at the urging of county executive and Democratic governor candidate Ed FitzGerald.
FitzGerald said Wednesday that the charter amendment would strengthen Cuyahoga County's legal position should it need to sue over voting rules as several groups are now doing. He said attorneys in the county law department worry that a judge might not allow the county to sue because county boards of elections, and not county government, oversee voting.
"We're anticipating legal arguments down the line," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald conceded that the proposed ballot language will be a challenge to explain to voters, but said he expects them to support an issue if it pertains to voter rights. He said only two counties in Ohio — Cuyahoga and Summit — have governments that are created by charter and could put such an amendment before their voters.
Given the wrangling in recent years between Democrats and Republicans over voting issues, it is likely Cuyahoga County will need to sue over voting rights, FitzGerald said.
Cuyahoga County has filed a "friend of the court" brief in a pending lawsuit over voting rights being heard by a federal judge in Columbus. Ohio chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP are challenging legislation approved earlier this year by the Republican-dominated General Assembly that reduces the number of early voting days from 35 to either 28 or 29. That legislation also eliminated what was known as "golden week" — the first week of early voting when people could register and cast a ballot at the same time.
The ACLU and NAACP also are challenging a directive by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted that restricts weekend and weeknight voting hours. Husted is allowing boards of election to permit early voting on weekdays, two Saturdays and one Sunday this fall.
Opponents of the restrictions say early voting and the golden week are especially popular among black and low-income voters and that the extended hours give them needed opportunities to cast ballots.
Husted has said his directive is the result of a bipartisan solution created by Democrat and Republican county elections officials. Republicans also have argued that the new legislation give Ohioans ample time to vote.
Attorneys for the state have argued that if the judge rules in the ACLU's favor, Ohio will only be able to expand voting hours but won't be able to contract them.