COLUMBUS — The battle for the vote in the critical battleground state of Ohio moved from the presidential campaign stump to the inside of a federal courthouse today.
President Obama’s campaign and fellow Democrats urged a federal judge to prevent the state from enforcing a new prohibition on early in-person voting during the final three days immediately preceding the election.
Caught in the middle are Ohio military personnel and their families who still have the right to vote in person on those three days. The Obama campaign insisted before Senior Judge Peter C. Economus in U.S. District Court in Columbus that the case is not about denying those people the right to vote on those days but to restore the same right to all other voters, a right they had in the last presidential election in 2008.
“What it seems particularly is being said to you, your honor, is that for the military to be able to vote over this period of time, nobody else can…," said Robert F. Bauer, attorney for the Democratic National Committee. “This is not about who’s being kept in. … It’s about who’s being kept out."
Judge Economus, a President Clinton appointee, then interrupted: “I agree with you on that point. I want to make that clear."
He did not issue an immediate decision.
The genesis of the battle dates back to passage of House Bill 194, a massive election reform law, by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. One of its many provisions placed restrictions on the practice of early voting, essentially the casting of absentee ballots in person at county boards of elections or their designated sites before Election Day.
Faced with a Democratic-led voter referendum, Republicans repealed their own law. But they left in place House Bill 224, a separate law that extended the right to early voting for military persons in Ohio and their families but repeated a provision from House Bill 194 that prohibited such voting by anyone else after the close of business on the Friday before Election Day.
Democrats argued that the survival of the three-day ban on early in-person voting was a technical correction to the previously passed Election Day reform law that should not have been allowed to survive the demise of the original law.
But attorneys for Secretary of State Jon Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine, both Republicans, argued that this was not an error and that lawmakers expressed their clear intent when they rejected a Democratic amendment to the repeal bill that would have restored those three days of early voting.
“For the 2012 election, Secretary Husted is going so far as to mail an absentee ballot application to all active registered voters, to everybody who voted in 2008,’’ said Principal Assistant Attorney General Richard N. Coglianese.
“Boards of elections are going to be open during their regular business hours for early voting during the weekdays up to the Friday before the election,’’ he said. “We don’t have a situation where we are shutting the door, and to say that this in any way is disenfranchising folks is absolutely not disenfranchised by the record.’’
The campaign for Republican Mitt Romney has latched onto the Obama campaign’s tying of its claim to the state law allowing that three-day early voting to military personnel while disallowing similar voting by others is unconstitutional.
“The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee can talk all they want about the remedy they’re seeking, but at the end of the day, to achieve their goal, they need to advance an argument and obtain a decision from this court that would find that military voters at home are similarly situated to the civilian population and the state can’t make special accommodations for them,’’ said Kevin Shook, attorney for 15 military organizations that intervened in the case.
Mr. Bauer countered that Ohio has established an unequal system.
“For the first time, open polling places where these early votes can be cast will be open to some, not open to all the voters of Ohio," he said. “... The effect here is an unprecedented one.’’
But Judge Economus questioned whether the denial of early in-person voting access to non-military voters during these three particular days will mean that these voters won’t cast ballots at all.
“There are so many options available,’’ he said. “Ohio is probably one of the most liberal states in the country with regard to voting rights.’’
Voters may begin to cast absentee ballots by mail and in person beginning on Oct. 2, 35 days before the election. The in-person casting of those ballots must stop three days before the election.