U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus sided with the Obama for America campaign on Wednesday, ordering Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to restore early, in-person voting on the three days before Election Day. In 2012 the Obama campaign sued after the Ohio legislature passed a law that cut off in-person early voting three days prior to Election Day. The plaintiffs claimed that the law gave military voters an unfair advantage by allowing them to vote until the Monday before the election. I wrote in September, 2012:
The Obama for America campaign, the DNC, and the Ohio Democratic Party sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted in an attempt to overturn several Ohio election reform laws and directives which attempted to assure uniform voting days and times across the state, with some expanded privileges for military voters in accordance with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). Although Ohio has extremely generous no-fault absentee voting, Husted had set the deadline for in-person absentee voting at 6:00 p.m. the Friday before the election and eliminated weekend voting. Prior to his directive, access to the polls varied widely from county to county. Noted in the ruling:
“In 2008, six of Ohio’s 88 counties chose not to offer any in-person absentee voting on the Saturday prior to Election Day, nearly all chose not to do so on that Sunday, and all were open during their regular weekday business hours on that Monday … In 2010, when fewer voters were expected, fourteen counties chose not to offer any in-person absentee voting on that Saturday, nearly all chose not to do so on that Sunday, and all were open on that Monday.”
Ohio has one of the the most generous early voting laws in the country, allowing four weeks of no-fault absentee voting by mail and in person. The defendants argued that the three days prior to Election Day should be focused on preparing for the election rather than processing voters. Husted asserted that, “An injunction will interfere with their [sic] ability of boards of elections to properly prepare voting locations, supplies, and registration lists during the most crucial time for Election Day preparation.”
Democrats accused Husted and Ohio Republicans of trying to suppress the African American vote by eliminating voting on the Sunday before the election when they said many churches bused voters to the polls. They also said that military voters should have no special privileges.
Judge Economus sided with the Obama campaign’s argument that military voters cannot be treated differently under the law. Obama for America had argued that Ohio’s law giving members of the military extra days and hours to vote constituted “arbitrary and inequitable treatment of similarly situated Ohio voters.”
This Court stresses that where the State has authorized in-person early voting through the Monday before Election Day for all voters, “the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another” … Here, that is precisely what the State has done …
Secretary of State Husted agreed that the state should have uniform voting hours and earlier this year directed boards of elections in all 88 counties to hold the same early, in-person voting hours during the 2014 elections, while still allowing extra hours for UOCAVA voters. The schedule did not include any Sundays.
The summary judgment issued Wednesday by Judge Economus makes permanent his 2012 ruling and orders Husted to set business hours for the three days prior to Election Day “to preserve the right of all Ohio voters to cast his or her vote with said hours to be uniform throughout the State and suitable to the needs of the particular election in question.” Economus declared that ending voting on the Friday before the election “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” His original 2012 opinion stated that the right of voters to vote in person during the last three days prior to Election Day “outweighs the State’s interest in setting the 6 p.m. Friday deadline.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman and State Representative Chris Redfern, responding to the ruling, noted how successful the Ohio Democratic Party has been in using the courts to change election laws. “The Ohio Democratic Party has never lost one of these cases in our fight to protect voting rights for all Ohioans. It’s time Jon Husted and John Kasich set aside their partisan loyalties and embrace voting rights,” Redfern said in a statement.
Husted’s Democratic challenger, State Sen. Nina Turner, also pointed to the role of the courts in expanding the Democratic agenda. “It is unfortunate that we must continuously rely on federal courts to protect Ohioans’ ballot access instead of the elected officials who have been charged with that responsibility,” Turner said. She told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in February that eliminating Sunday voting is “harming the very foundation of our democracy.”
State Representative John Becker said that Economus was abusing his office by changing a Secretary of State’s policy directive. “Once again, an activist liberal federal judge in Columbus is making policy decisions for the people of Ohio,” Becker posted on his Facebook page. “I say that it is time for the General Assembly to return to Columbus and pass HB 250 and HB 263.” House Bill 250 limits early voting to the two weeks prior to the election, concluding the Friday before Election Day. HB 263 limits early voting to Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm.
Husted, likely relieved that this will not be an issue in his re-election bid, applauded the court’s decision saying, “I am pleased that the federal court has affirmed what I have long advocated — that all voters, no matter where they live, should have the same opportunity to vote. Thankfully, uniformity and equality won the day.” He added that he would follow the court’s decision but did not address who would pay the costs associated with the court-ordered expanded voting hours.