Ohio Democratic Party v. Husted, 082316 FED6, 16-3561

Docket Nº:16-3561
Opinion Judge:McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge
Party Name:Ohio Democratic Party; Democratic Party of Cuyahoga County; Montgomery County Democratic Party; Jordan Isern; Carol Biehle; Bruce Butcher, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Jon Husted, in his official capacity as Secretary of State of the State of Ohio; Mike DeWine, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Ohio, Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:Eric E. Murphy, OFFICE OF THE OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellants. Marc E. Elias, PERKINS COIE LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellees. Eric E. Murphy, Michael J. Hendershot, Stephen P. Carney, Steven T. Voigt, OFFICE OF THE OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellants. Ma...
Judge Panel:Before: McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges. STRANCH, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:August 23, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Ohio Democratic Party; Democratic Party of Cuyahoga County; Montgomery County Democratic Party; Jordan Isern; Carol Biehle; Bruce Butcher, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Jon Husted, in his official capacity as Secretary of State of the State of Ohio; Mike DeWine, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Ohio, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 16-3561

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 23, 2016

Argued: August 2, 2016

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio at Columbus. No. 2:15-cv-01802-Michael H. Watson, District Judge.

ARGUED:

Eric E. Murphy, OFFICE OF THE OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellants.

Marc E. Elias, PERKINS COIE LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Eric E. Murphy, Michael J. Hendershot, Stephen P. Carney, Steven T. Voigt, OFFICE OF THE OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellants.

Marc E. Elias, Bruce V. Spiva, Elisabeth C. Frost, Rhett P. Martin, Amanda R. Callais, PERKINS COIE LLP, Washington, D.C., Joshua L. Kaul, PERKINS COIE LLP, Madison, Wisconsin, Donald J. McTigue, J. Corey Colombo, Derek S. Clinger, MCTIGUE & COLOMBO LLC, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellees.

Chad A. Readler, JONES DAY, Columbus, Ohio, Michael A. Carvin, Anthony J. Dick, Stephen A. Vaden, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., Thomas M. Fisher, OFFICE OF THE INDIANA ATTORNEY GENERAL, Indianapolis, Indiana, Joseph A. Vanderhulst, PUBLIC INTEREST LEGAL FOUNDATION, Plainfield, Indiana, Linda Carver Whitlow Knight, GULLETT SANFORD ROBINSON & MARTIN PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, Paul J. Orfanedes, JUDICIAL WATCH, INC. Washington, D.C., Elizabeth B. Wydra, CONSTITUTIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.

Before: McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge

This case presents yet another appeal (there are several pending in the Sixth Circuit alone) asking the federal courts to become entangled, as overseers and micromanagers, in the minutiae of state election processes. No one denies that our Constitution, in defining the relationship between the people and the government, establishes certain fundamental rights-including the right to vote-that warrant vigilant enforcement. But our Constitution also defines the relationship between spheres of government, state and federal, and their responsibilities for protecting the rights of the people. The genius of this balance of power is no less deserving of vigilant respect.

Ohio is a national leader when it comes to early voting opportunities. The state election regulation at issue allows early in-person voting for 29 days before Election Day. This is really quite generous. The law is facially neutral; it offers early voting to everyone. The Constitution does not require any opportunities for early voting and as many as thirteen states offer just one day for voting: Election Day. Moreover, the subject regulation is the product of a bipartisan recommendation, as amended pursuant to a subsequent litigation settlement. It is the product of collaborative processes, not unilateral overreaching by the political party that happened to be in power. Yet, plaintiffs complain that allowance of 29 days of early voting does not suffice under federal law. They insist that Ohio's prior accommodation-35 days of early voting, which also created a six-day "Golden Week" opportunity for same-day registration and voting-established a federal floor that Ohio may add to but never subtract from. This is an astonishing proposition.

Nearly a third of the states offer no early voting. Adopting plaintiffs' theory of disenfranchisement would create a "one-way ratchet" that would discourage states from ever increasing early voting opportunities, lest they be prohibited by federal courts from later modifying their election procedures in response to changing circumstances. Further, while the challenged regulation may slightly diminish the convenience of registration and voting, it applies even-handedly to all voters, and, despite the change, Ohio continues to provide generous, reasonable, and accessible voting options to all Ohioans. The issue is not whether some voter somewhere would benefit from six additional days of early voting or from the opportunity to register and vote at the same time. Rather, the issue is whether the challenged law results in a cognizable injury under the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act. We conclude that it does not.

Federal judicial remedies, of course, are necessary where a state law impermissibly infringes the fundamental right to vote. No such infringement having been shown in this case, judicial restraint is in order. Proper deference to state legislative authority requires that Ohio's election process be allowed to proceed unhindered by the federal courts. Accordingly, and for the reasons more fully set forth below, we REVERSE the decision of the district court insofar as it declared the subject regulation invalid and enjoined its implementation.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

This is an appeal by State of Ohio officials from a district court judgment declaring a state election regulation invalid as violative of equal protection and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law, known as Senate Bill 238, amends Ohio Revised Code § 3509.01 to allow early in-person voting for a period of 29 days before Election Day. Though the law is facially neutral, the district court held that it results in an impermissible disparate burden on some African-American voters. Following a ten-day bench trial in November and December 2015, the district court issued its 120-page ruling on May 24, 2016, in the form of findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court enjoined enforcement of S.B. 238, thereby effectively restoring Ohio's preexisting 35-day early in-person voting period. Ohio officials promptly moved for a stay, arguing that implementing the district court's order ahead of a special election on August 2, 2016, and the general election on November 8, 2016, would cause irreparable harm to its boards of elections and voting public. The court granted Ohio's motion in part, staying its order only with respect to the special election that has since taken place on August 2. Ohio officials did not appeal the court's ruling on the motion to stay, but asked us to expedite the merits appeal so the matter may be resolved prior to the November general election, a motion we granted.

B. Voting in Ohio

A brief review of recent voting regulation history in Ohio provides context. In 2004, Ohio permitted absentee ballots only if registered voters asserted one of several "excuses." See Ohio Rev. Code § 3509.02(A)(1)-(8) (2004). The timeline for voting by absentee ballot was generous: a voter could pick up a ballot 35 days before Election Day, the first five of which extended into Ohio's voter registration period (which ended 30 days before an election). Thus, Ohio maintained a five-day overlap of its registration period and its absentee voting period, allowing residents armed with a proper excuse to both register and vote (absentee) on the same day. This "same-day registration" window became known in Ohio as "Golden Week." R. 117, Opinion at 34, Page ID 6156.

The 2004 presidential election brought special challenges to Ohio's general voting apparatus. Among other problems, Ohio voters "faced long lines and wait-times that, at some polling places, stretched into the early morning of the following day." Obama for America v. Husted, 697 F.3d 423, 426 (6th Cir. 2012). Largely in response to this experience, Ohio refined its absentee voting system in 2005 to permit early voting without need of an excuse. Id. Ohio residents enjoying the freedom of this "no-fault" or "no-excuse" system could vote absentee by mail or in person ("early in-person" or "EIP" voting) at their convenience. Ohio retained its preexisting absentee voting time frame.

Until 2012, each of Ohio's 88 county boards of elections retained the discretion to implement its own schedule for early in-person absentee voting. Varying schedules resulted. To remedy the inconsistencies, a task force from the Ohio Association of Election Officials (OAEO), a bipartisan association of election officials, proposed adoption of a uniform 21-day early in-person voting schedule, under which the period for "early" or "absentee" voting would start nine days after the end of the voter registration period.

In 2012, Ohio passed a law based on the OAEO recommendation, but repealed it after the law became subject to a referendum. In 2013, another bipartisan task force recommended that absentee voting not be allowed until the day after the registration period closed, establishing an early voting time frame of 29 days instead of...

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