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Cleveland Democrat challenges new Ohio early voting limits

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A prominent Democrat and the leader of Ohio's most populous county said on Thursday he plans to introduce legislation to counter Republican-backed measures he said would make voting harder for minorities and urban residents.

Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Republican incumbent Gov. John Kasich in November, said he will introduce legislation for his county, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs.

In the state seen as among the most crucial in the race for the U.S. presidency, Democrats contend the measures to cut back on early voting and absentee ballots disenfranchise urban and poorer voters, who tend to cast ballots for their party.

"With Ohioans facing so many other urgent challenges, it is inexplicable that some elected officials are so clearly focused on cutting back voting rights," FitzGerald told reporters.

GOP leaders maintain the laws will keep elections fair.

"Our goal is to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in the voting process no matter which method they choose," Secretary of State Jon Husted said in a statement this week.

One of two bills signed by Kasich last week shortens what had been a five-week early voting period by one week and eliminates registering and voting on the same day.

The other forbids counties from mailing absentee ballots without legislative approval and funding. Cuyahoga County, which went for President Barack Obama with almost 70 percent of the vote in 2012, sends absentee ballots to all residents before elections.

Republican lawmakers in several states have limited early voting and toughened voting requirements, saying it would help eliminate fraud.

Opponents say absentee ballots and early voting help prevent long lines from forming on election day in high population density urban areas, which usually lean toward the Democrats. The long lines could discourage voters and suppress the turnout of Democratic supporters, they contend.

In the 2012 election, African-Americans in Cuyahoga County were 20 percent more likely to vote early and made up 77 percent of all early voters, according to Ohio American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Mike Brickner.

A third bill, which has been passed by both chambers but has not yet been signed, requires voters to provide additional information on provisional ballots. Opponents say this would make it easier for ballots to be disqualified.

Ohio passed bi-partisan legislation in 2005 that created five weeks of early in-person voting including the Monday before the Election Day after long-lines during the 2004 election plagued Ohio's larger cities.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Gunna Dickson)

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