By Marc Kovac
U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus has ordered Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted to restore early in-person voting on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day.
The federal judge sided with President Barack Obama’s election campaign, which sued after lawmakers set different deadlines for early voting for men and women serving in the military.
Economus ruled that election law changes OK’d by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich were unconstitutional and “enjoined [Husted] from implementing or enforcing” the revised law.
“It is further ordered that in-person early voting is restored on the three days immediately preceding Election Day for all eligible Ohio voters,” Judge Economus wrote. “And specifically, for the purposes of the 2012 general election, this order restores in-person early voting to all eligible Ohio voters on Saturday, Nov. 3... Sunday, Nov. 4 ... and Monday, Nov. 5.”
He added, “This court anticipates that defendant secretary of state will direct all Ohio elections boards to maintain a specific, consistent schedule on those three days in keeping with his earlier directive that only by doing so can he ensure that Ohio’s election process is ‘uniform, accessible for all, fair and secure.’”
Attorney General Mike DeWine indicated he would appeal the decision.
“With all due respect to the judge, we disagree,” DeWine said. “Since the time of the Civil War, we’ve made a distinction ... between the availability and the ability ... [of] people who are in the military versus the rest of us to vote. ... To say that this denies protection for certain voters, we think from a constitutional point of view, is simply wrong.”
The case traces its roots to House Bill 194. 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House Bill 194 was the subject of a successful referendum campaign, but Republican lawmakers pre-emptively repealed it. However, the early in-person voting cutoff was added to separate legislation and remains part of Ohio law, creating a scenario in which military voters will be allowed to visit an open board of elections office and cast ballots on the Monday before an election, while other voters will be prohibited from doing so.
The Obama campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party argued that was unconstitutional and sued to force Husted to restore early in-person voting on the weekend and Monday before the election.
Legal counsel for Husted countered 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 are disappointed by the ruling and continue to stand with the 15 military groups who believe it’s constitutional to grant special early voting privileges to the brave men and women of our military,” Christopher Maloney, spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But Judge Economus sided with the Obama campaign, noting that “thousands of Ohio voters” voted in the three days prior to the 2008 general election.
“This court finds that ‘in-person early voting’ is a voting term that had included the right to vote in person through the Monday before Election Day, and, now, thousands of voters who would have voted during those three days will not be able to exercise their right to cast a vote in person,” he wrote. “... Defendants offer little in support of their claim that Ohio elections boards cannot simultaneously accommodate in-person early voting and pre-Election Day preparations during the three days prior to Election Day.”
He added, “Certainly, the public interest is served by restoring in-person early voting to all Ohio voters. ... Restoring in-person early voting to all Ohio voters through the Monday before Election Day returns to voters the same opportunity to vote as previously conferred under Ohio law.”
DeWine said the decision would mean county boards have to open on the Saturday and Sunday before Election Day. Husted had ordered county elections boards to offer early in-person voting during specified weekday hours, with weekend polls.