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Ohio cuts to early voting period challenged in ACLU lawsuit

By Kevin Murphy

(Reuters) - New laws and regulations in Ohio that limit early voting would suppress turnout by minorities and the poor and should be overturned, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday.

The Republican-controlled state legislature in Ohio, which is expected to be a pivotal state again in the 2016 presidential election, this year approved the law, which supporters said would reduce voter fraud.

The new law cut the first week off Ohio's five-week early voting period when people could register and vote the same day. In addition, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, following a bipartisan group's recommendations, ended in-person voting on Sundays and evenings during the early voting period and on the Monday before the election.

"Together these cuts will impact tens of thousands of low-income voters, elderly voters, student voters and African-American voters who turn to early in-person voting as their best option for casting a ballot," Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP, said in a statement.

Ohio established no-excuse-needed early voting in 2005 in response to lengthy waiting times at the polls during the 2004 general election, especially in urban areas.

About 580,000 Ohio residents cast ballots at offices during the early voting period in 2012, more than 157,000 of them during the now-eliminated periods, the ACLU said in its lawsuit.

Many African-American churches had organized transportation on Sundays for congregants who wanted to cast votes during the early voting periods that were cut, the ACLU lawsuit added.

During the 2012 election, African-Americans in Cuyahoga County, Ohio's most populous county which includes Cleveland, were 20 percent more likely to vote early and made up 77 percent of all early voters, the ACLU has said.

Husted's spokesman Matt McClellan said the ACLU lawsuit was aimed at the wrong state.

"The fact is that it's easy to vote in Ohio and the plaintiffs should be joining Secretary Husted in making sure all voters know their voting options rather than trying to scare them into believing it's hard," McClellan said in statement. "That's the real voter suppression."

(Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Missouri; Editing by David Bailey and James Dalgleish)

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