By Marc Kovac
Legal counsel representing President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign urged a federal judge Wednesday to allow eligible Ohioans to vote during the three days before the November election.
Attorneys for Secretary of State Jon Husted, Attorney General Mike DeWine and veterans groups, however, want visiting U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus, a Mahoning Valley native, to side with state lawmakers, who set different deadlines for early in-person voting for men and women serving in the military.
The two sides appeared before Judge Economus in federal court in Columbus in a case brought by Obama for America against Secretary of State Jon Husted challenging laws that allow military voters to cast ballots in person in the final days before an election but stop early voting for other Ohioans on the preceding Friday.
Obama for America said it wants the judge to issue an injunction that will allow all Ohioans to cast early votes through the Monday before the election.
“All parties in this case agree that the members of the military, the members of the Ohio National Guard, their families and civilian overseas voters should be entitled to vote in person at the board of elections in their counties during the three days before an election,” said Don McTigue on behalf of the plaintiffs. “This case was never about taking away a right of military or anyone else.”
The case traces its roots to a controversial election law, House Bill 194, passed by state lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last year. Among other changes, the legislation ended early, in-person voting on the Friday before Election Day rather than allowing early votes through Monday.
House Bill 194 was the subject of a successful referendum campaign, but Republican lawmakers preemptively repealed it. The early, in-person voting cutoff, however, was added to separate legislation and remains part of Ohio law.
That creates a potential scenario in which military voters will be allowed to visit an open elections board office and cast ballots on the Monday before an election while other voters will be prohibited from doing so.
“For the first time, the vast majority of Ohio voters will come fully eligible to vote to an open polling place and find, except for a small number of them, that they cannot vote,” said Robert Bauer, representing the president’s campaign. “They cannot vote; they will be turned away at the door.”
But opposing counsel argued that federal and state laws dictate special treatment of military voters, and that it’s entirely proper for Ohio’s servicemen and women to be allowed to vote in person after the deadline for others.
“We’re here because the plaintiffs have advanced a seriously flawed equal- protection argument, that the state cannot treat the military differently with respect to in-person early voting,” said Kevin Shook, representing more than a dozen veterans groups that oppose the lawsuit.
Judge Economus, who assumed senior status in 2009 and is a visiting district judge in the Southern District of Ohio, said he will consider the case but did not offer a time line for a decision.