Attorney General Mike DeWine promptly announced he will appeal the decision to the Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"This Court notes that restoring in-person early voting to all Ohio voters through the Monday before Election Day does not deprive [military] voters from early voting," wrote U.S. District Court Senior Judge Peter C. Economus, a Clinton appointee. "Instead, and more importantly, it places all Ohio voters on equal standing."
"The only hindrance to [military] early voting is the Secretary of State's failure to set uniform hours at elections boards during the last three days before Election Day," he wrote. "On balance, the right of Ohio voters to vote in person during the last three days prior to Election Day — a right previously conferred to all voters by the State — outweighs the State's interest in setting the 6 p.m. Friday deadline."
Democrats have noted that 93,000 Ohioans voted in 2008 on those three days, many of them in urban counties where Mr. Obama performed well. In court, they argued that it was unconstitutional to prohibit in-person voting during that period for most voters while others, specifically military personnel in Ohio and their families, could.
"The people of Ohio had overwhelmingly expressed their desire to preserve the early-voting system, which has been so successful in recent years," said Aaron Pickrell, senior adviser to Mr. Obama's Ohio campaign. "Now, as a result of this ruling, all Ohio voters, including active military, veterans, firefighters, police officers, and countless other citizens, can cast their ballots over the weekend and Monday before Election Day."
Judge Economus wrote that he expects Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, to "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.'?"
Mr. Husted's office said he is reviewing the decision.
The state and Republicans have argued that the special treatment given to military voters was warranted given that they could be unexpectedly deployed at any time. They also argue that Ohio law makes it easy and convenient for people to vote, especially compared to many states that do not allow early voting.
Mr. DeWine said he expects to file the state's appeal on Tuesday.
"Since the time of the Civil War, we've made a distinction in this country between … access for people who are in the military versus the rest of us to vote," he said. "We made that distinction because of the unique situation they are in. This is not anything new. To say that this denies protection for certain voters, we think, from a constitutional point of view, is simply wrong."
A number of military groups had intervened in the case, interpreting the lawsuit as an attack on military voting rights.
"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," said Chris Maloney, spokesman for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Mr. Husted recently issued a directive setting uniform hours in all 88 counties for in-person early voting that included some expanded weekday hours. The judge, however, said that the state's argument about the importance of allowing military voters who could be deployed at any time to vote on those three days was "completely eviscerated, county by county," when Mr. Husted's directive did not mandate that counties stay open on that Saturday and Sunday to accommodate them.
That, he wrote, just left the Monday before the election.
"This is a huge step toward restoring the voting rights of all Ohioans, especially black and low-income voters who have a harder time getting to the polls during business hours," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, the nation's largest black online civil rights organization.
"But today's ruling doesn't go far enough to overturn Secretary of State Jon Husted's decision to keep Ohioans from the polls on all weekends during the early voting period," he said.
Mr. Husted earlier this week fired two Democrats on the Montgomery County Board of Elections for voting in favor of weekend early-voting hours in the Dayton area, violating his directive.
The lawsuit is one of a number of early voting battles being waged on multiple fronts in Ohio, considered a swing state in the presidential election.
Since 2005, Ohio law has allowed voters to cast absentee ballots by mail or in person at designated sites beginning 35 days before the election, a period that begins Oct. 2 this year.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.