A U.S. judge in Ohio threw out a Republican-backed law that cut three days of early voting for most of the state’s citizens, handing a victory to President Barack Obama’s campaign organization.
In a third setback for Republican-sponsored election law changes this week, U.S. District Judge Peter Economus in Columbus ruled that Ohio can’t give members of the military and citizens living abroad three days more than other voters to cast ballots. He ordered the previous schedule restored that allowed anyone to vote until the day before an election.
“This court finds that plaintiffs have a constitutionally protected right to participate in the 2012 election -- and all elections -- on an equal basis with all Ohio voters,” Economus said, ruling on a lawsuit brought by Obama for America.
Fights over voting access are intensifying in swing states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see a possibility of victory. Voter cases are also under way in Alabama, Texas and South Carolina.
Today’s decision follows two rulings this week by federal judges in Washington rejecting laws passed by Texas’s Republican-dominated Legislature and approved by Republican Governor Rick Perry. One stopped the state from requiring photographic identification to vote. The other blocked a redistricting plan that the court said would discriminate against black and Hispanic voters.
On Aug. 29, a federal judge in Florida said he will permanently block new regulations of voter-registration drives he previously found unconstitutional. The rules, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and approved by Republican Governor Rick Scott, were “harsh and impractical,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said.
Economus, appointed in 1995 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, rejected the state’s arguments that election boards would be “tremendously burdened” by the decision.
“The people of Ohio had overwhelmingly expressed their desire to preserve the early voting system which has been so successful in recent years,” Aaron Pickrell, a senior adviser with Obama for America-Ohio, said in a statement.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he will file an appeal next week.
“We disagree with the ruling today,” DeWine said. “We have always allowed distinction for military voters, and to say this violates equal protection is wrong.”
Ohio holds 18 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win a presidential race and no Republican has captured the White House without a victory there. In 2008, Obama carried the state with 51.5 percent of the vote.
Vice President Joe Biden, at a campaign event today in Lordstown, Ohio, said Obama will win the election if he takes Ohio.
Ohio previously had one early-voting period that enabled all voters to cast ballots until the day before Election Day. Legislation signed by Republican Governor John Kasich during the past two years cut back early voting, retaining the right to vote in person during the last three days only for people residing abroad or in the military.
Obama and Democrats sued DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted on July 17, arguing the disparate treatment of two groups was unconstitutional.
The case was “never about taking away the right of the military or anyone else to vote during those three days, it’s about restoring that right to other Ohioans,” Donald McTigue, an attorney for the Obama campaign, told Economus during oral arguments on Aug. 15.
The state said it had a justifiable reason for treating military voters and those residing abroad differently, arguing in court papers that by limiting early balloting for everyone else, Ohio’s 9,800 polling places could synchronize records to prevent people from voting more than once.
The “state believes that there needs to be time to prep for election day,” William Consovoy, an attorney for Ohio, told the judge.
A second Ohio lawsuit, challenging Husted’s Aug. 15 directive to equalize voting hours in all 88 of the state’s counties, in part by eliminating all weekend balloting, was filed on Aug. 24 by his Democratic predecessor Jennifer Brunner.
In states that have tightened election procedures, Republican-controlled legislatures said it was necessary to prevent fraud and help elections run smoothly. Democrats say the steps were aimed at limiting votes for Obama.
Beyond the Texas and Ohio cases, a three-judge federal panel in Washington on Aug. 17 rejected an attempt to apply a state law curtailing early voting days and poll hours in five counties subject to the Voting Rights Act. Florida, the fourth-most populous U.S. state, failed to show that the changes wouldn’t hurt minority voting, the court said.
A Pennsylvania judge on Aug. 15 upheld that state’s law requiring voters to show identification to vote. That ruling is being appealed.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen on Aug. 21 said he was petitioning his state’s Supreme Court to hear his appeal of two lower-court rulings striking down a voter-identification requirement there.
The case is Obama for America v. Husted, 12-cv-00636, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio (Columbus).