Ohio counties can keep polls open for early voting the three days before Election Day, a federal appeals court ruled Friday (October 5), handing Democrats another victory in their battle to undo new restrictions on voting passed by Republican-led state legislatures.
In a 2-1 decision, the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a lower court's ruling that Ohio's attempt to do away with most in-person voting the weekend before Election Day was unconstitutional because it would have disproportionally affected groups of voters less likely to find time to vote during work hours on weekdays.
In 2005, Ohio passed a law enabling all registered voters to file absentee ballots at their local boards of election offices until the Monday before the election. That law was an effort to address the long lines at polling places on Election Day, a major issue in 2004. In 2011, however, Ohio's GOP-controlled legislature shaved three days off the early voting period for all voters except members of the military.
Opponents said the new law would disenfranchise voters who were more likely to vote for Democrats.
Some 105,000 Ohioans filed their ballots in the three days before the 2008 election, according to a study cited by the appeals court. And in 2010, a poll found that nearly 30 percent of Ohio's 1 million early voters had done so in the week before Election Day. That group was largely made up of women, the elderly and with little income or education, several studies showed.
The appeals court applauded the state for keeping the deadline intact for military voters who could be deployed with little notice, but the court said the new deadline for other voters amounted to discrimination. The state's reasoning for the change — to give elections officials more time to prepare for the election — wasn't compelling, the court ruled.
It would be “worrisome,” the majority wrote, “if states were permitted to pick and choose among groups of similarly situated voters to dole out special voting privileges. Partisan state legislatures could give extra early voting time to groups that traditionally support the party in power and impose corresponding burdens on the other party's core constituents.”
Now, as in the previous elections, local elections boards can decide how long to accept early votes.
The Obama campaign, which had challenged the Ohio law in court, cheered the decision.
“Across the country, the hard work to protect Americans' right to vote has paid off,” Bob Bauer, the campaign's counsel, said in a statement. “We feel that every voter, regardless of party affiliation, that has the right to vote should be able to.”
Jon Husted, Ohio's Secretary of State, said Friday his office is reviewing ruling.
The decision is the third victory in less than two weeks for Democrats challenging Republican voting laws. Last Tuesday, a Pennsylvania court blocked the state's strict photo ID requirement for voters. Just days earlier, the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to reinstate the state's similar ID requirement for the November election. Those rulings followed several successful challenges to voting restrictions in other states, including Florida.