President Obama’s reelection campaign won a legal victory Friday when a federal appeals court upheld an order that all voters in Ohio be allowed to cast ballots in person during the three days before the Nov. 6 election.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a law prohibiting anyone other than military voters to cast ballots in person on the last three days before the election appeared to violate the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
“While we readily acknowledge the need to provide military voters more time to vote, we see no corresponding justification for giving others less time,” Judge Eric L. Clay wrote in the court’s ruling.
The court cited a study that found 105,000 Ohioans voted in person at election board offices on the three days before the 2008 election. In the counties that include Cleveland and Columbus, the ruling said, early voters were disproportionately African American. Some black churches organized bus transportation for worshipers after Sunday services.
The court rejected arguments by Ohio’s Republican secretary of state and attorney general that the weekend voting placed too much of a burden on local election offices preparing for a Tuesday election. The state produced “no evidence that local boards of election have struggled to cope with early voting in the past, and no evidence that they may struggle to do so during the November 2012 election.”
In fact, the court said early in-person voting might make the duties of poll workers easier. Officials from Ohio’s most populous county, Cuyahoga, which includes Cleveland, found that keeping in-person early voting on the weekend would instead relieve some of their workload by shortening lines at polling places on election day, the court said.
Bob Bauer, general counsel of the Obama campaign, said that with Friday’s ruling, “Ohio joins Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as states that turned back restrictions on voter access and limitations on voter participation.”
“As a result of this decision, every voter, including military, veterans and overseas voters, alongside all Ohioans, will have the same opportunity to vote early through the weekend and Monday before the election,” he said in a written statement.
Christopher Maloney, a spokesman for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said, “We are disappointed by the 6th Circuit’s ruling and continue to stand with the 15 military groups who believe it is constitutional to grant special early-voting privileges to the brave men and women of our military.”
Even after the ruling, the matter may not be entirely settled. Ohio’s secretary of state and attorney general could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling also appeared to leave open the possibility that local election boards would decline to approve in-person voting on the weekend before the election.
In the lower-court ruling that it upheld, U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus said he “anticipates” that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted will direct all county election boards to open for specific hours on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the Nov. 6 election.
But the appeals court said Husted was “not affirmatively required” to order the county election boards to be open for early voting on those days, leaving the matter up to each county board’s discretion.
The 88 boards are each evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Earlier this year, deadlocks on the election boards of large urban counties that Obama carried in 2008 effectively blocked early voting in those areas.
“My office is reviewing today’s decision by the court as we determine the best course of action moving forward,” Husted said in a statement posted Friday on his website. “No action will be taken today, or this weekend.”