A federal judge sided with the Obama campaign and ruled Friday to order Ohio to restore three days of early voting before Election Day, a decision that could affect the outcome of the 2012 election in a key battleground state.
Judge Peter C. Economus of the Southern District Court of Ohio granted an injunction in favor of Obama For America, the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party, which sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to restore in-person voting in the last weekend before the election.
"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," ruled the court. "The burden on Ohio voters' right to participate in the national and statewide election is great, as evidenced by the statistical analysis offered by Plaintiffs and not disputed by Defendants. Moreover, the State fails to articulate a precise, compelling interest in establishing the 6 p.m. Friday deadline as applied to non-UOCAVA [Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act] voters and has failed to evidence any commitment to the 'exception' it rhetorically extended to UOCAVA voters."
The dispute over military voting spilled into the presidential campaign earlier this month, when the Mitt Romney campaign falsely accused the Obama campaign of trying to curtail rights for military voters, characterizing the lawsuit as an "outrage" and an effort to deprive military voters of extra days to vote.
The Obama campaign lawsuit seeks to expand the voting period for all voters, not to deprive military voters of that opportunity. The judge sided with the Obama camp, calling the early voting restrictions "arbitrary."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After a chaotic 2004 election, Ohio passed a law allowing early in-person voting on the weekend before the election. In 2008, some 93,000 Ohioans cast votes in that period. Those who did so were more likely to be African-American. A study by Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates found blacks accounted for 56 percent of all in-person early votes in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, while they accounted for 26 percent of votes overall. In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, African Americans cast 31 percent of early votes and 21 percent of votes overall.
The court ruled that the plaintiffs would suffer "irreparable injury" if early voting was not restored in the three days before election day. The judge also noted the plaintiffs' statistical evidence that low-income and minority voters would be disproportionately affected, which the defense did not counter.
Early voting was curtailed in 2011, when Ohio passed H.B. 194, cutting the number of early voting days and disallowing weekend voting except for military voters. (Subsequent legislative actions have left the weekend voting restrictions in place.) Husted ordered all Ohio counties to allow early voting during weekdays until 7 p.m. in the last two days before the election, but not over the preceding weekend. All voters were given the option of sending in an absentee ballot.
The Ohio Secretary of State's office said it was still reviewing the decision, and the Obama campaign has said that it intends to issue a statement.
University of California of Irvine Professor Rick Hasen wrote on his blog that the case could wind up before the Supreme Court.
This post has been updated to include previous comments by the Romney campaign on the lawsuit and further summary of the ruling.
CORRECTION: This article earlier incorrectly stated that 930,000 voters voted in the final weekend before the 2008 elections. 93,000 cast ballots.