The problem occurs because more than 80 percent of Ohio’s voters cast ballots in polling places that contain more than one precinct. Poll workers sometimes give a ballot for the wrong precinct to voters who must cast provisional ballots because they do not have proper ID or for some other reason.
Ohio in the past refused to count such votes, saying finding the proper precinct is the voter’s responsibility.
But unions and civil rights groups challenged that, saying voters should not be penalized for showing up at the right polling place, only to be given the wrong ballot.
The judges agreed.
“The state would disqualify thousands of right-place/wrong-precinct provisional ballots, where the voter’s only mistake was relying on the poll-worker’s precinct guidance,” the judges wrote in a unanimous, unsigned opinion. “That path unjustifiably burdens these voters’ fundamental right to vote.”
It was the second recent decision in which the appeals court has disagreed with Ohio’s Republican leadership over voting-law changes.
A separate panel blocked the state’s plan to allow only military voters to cast in-person ballots in the three days immediately before the Nov. 6 election. Siding with a challenge filed by President Obama’s reelection campaign, the judges said if in-person voting was open for some voters during that period, it must be offered to all.
Ohio has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. Elena Kagan, the justice responsible for overseeing the 6th Circuit, has called for the Obama campaign to file a response by Friday night, and the full court will likely decide whether to review the appeals court decision soon after that.
A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) said the state has not decided whether to appeal Thursday’s decision.
Danielle Leonard, an attorney for the Service Employees International Union, one of the groups that challenged Ohio’s law, called the decision “terrific for the voters of Ohio,” saying it “recognized that this is nothing the voter has done wrong.”
Leonard noted that the decision was unanimous even though the judges represented a wide swath of the ideological spectrum. The three judges on the appeals court were all appointed by Republican presidents, and they upheld a decision by a district judge appointed by a Democrat.