Ohio Ordered to Restore Early Voting Rights

     COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) - A federal judge ordered Ohio to restore early voting rights for all Ohio citizens through the Monday before Election Day.
     Ohio House Bill 194, which was passed in June 2011, eliminated the final three days of in-person early voting for all citizens not included in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act.
     The Ohio Democratic Party, along with Obama for America and the Democratic National Committee, sued Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, among others, alleging Equal Protection Clause violations and infringement on their fundamental right to vote.
     They cited four studies on the impact of early voting access, including one finding that 17.8 percent of 2010 Ohio early voters cast those votes in person at local boards of election. The study also found that "early voters were more likely than election-day voters to be women, older, and of lower income and education attainment," and that they were more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
     The Democrats claimed that, based on data from the 2008 general election, more than 100,000 voters were expected to vote in person during the three days before Election Day.
     Husted countered that the numerous duties imposed on election boards in preparation for Election Day make it necessary to impose the three-day ban on voters not in the armed forces.
     But U.S. District Court Judge Peter Economus sided with the plaintiffs, granting their bid for a preliminary injunction barring the state from imposing the 6 p.m. Friday deadline for all non-military early voters.
     "[T]his court finds that plaintiffs have a constitutionally protected right to participate in the 2012 election -- and all elections -- on an equal basis with all Ohio voters," including those in the armed forces, Economus wrote.
     He said "'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." (Emphasis in original.)
     "Plaintiffs submit statistical studies to support their assertion that low-income and minority voters are disproportionately affected by the elimination of these voting days," he added. "Therefore, the injury to the plaintiffs is significant and weighs heavily in their favor."
     Economus was not swayed by the state's claim that its Election Day burdens require the three-day ban. He quoted a Cuyahoga County brief, which stated: "Since early voting came to Ohio in 2006, [Cuyahoga] County has taken all necessary measures and budgeted for early voting, including the last three days before the election, to protect its citizens' right to exercise their constitutional right to vote."
     "At a minimum, Cuyahoga County raises the question of how great a burden each county can or will bear," Economus wrote. "There is insufficient evidence before the court to make that determination, but the question remains. This justification is at best neutral."
     He similarly rejected the state's other argument, which centered on dividing the electorate into military and non-military voters to ensure that military members could vote. Economus said the state's own directive allows counties to establish their own voting hours for the final three days of in-person early voting.
     "Defendants' justification for excepting [military] voters from the 6 p.m. Friday deadline -- that the military requires this extra voting opportunity -- is completely eviscerated, county by county," Economus wrote. "In fact, according to defendants, military voters can expect not to be able to vote the Saturday and Sunday before Election Day, if history is any guide." (Emphasis in original.)
     Citing the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, Economus stressed 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.'" (Emphasis in original.)
     The preliminary injunction restores in-person early voting for all Ohio citizens through the Monday before Election Day, and declares HB 194 and its subsequent amendments unconstitutional.