A federal appeals court on Friday sided with President Obama’s reelection campaign and said that if Ohio allows military voters to cast ballots in the three days leading to Election Day, it must extend the same opportunity to all voters.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said the state had not shown why voting during the Saturday-Sunday-Monday period should be offered to only one group of voters.
“While there is a compelling reason to provide more opportunities for military voters to cast their ballots, there is no corresponding satisfactory reason to prevent non-military voters from casting their ballots as well,” wrote Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay.
“The public interest . . . favors permitting as many qualified voters to vote as possible,” he added.
But the appeals court ruling could create some confusion. While all must to be allowed if the three-day period is offered, the opinion said that decision could be up to individual Ohio counties.
In-person early voting has started in Ohio and was scheduled to end for all but military voters on the Friday before the election.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) said the state would announce Monday whether it intended to appeal the decision. It could ask the full appeals court to reverse the decision, with the Supreme Court as the last resort.
Ohio plays a pivotal role in the presidential election campaign, especially critical to Republican Mitt Romney’s electoral-college strategy. Romney had portrayed the suit filed by Obama’s campaign as an attempt to restrict the voting rights of those in the military.
But the Obama campaign said the suit was to make sure all had equal access. Studies have shown that higher percentages of poor, elderly and minority voters take advantage of early voting.
“Every voter, including military, veterans, and overseas voters alongside all Ohioans, will have the same opportunity,” Obama campaign General Counsel Bob Bauer said in a statement after the decision.
He tied it to other judicial decisions against new voting laws. “Ohio joins Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania as states that turned back restrictions on voter access and limitations on voter participation,” Bauer said.
Ohio had offered two reasons for stopping early voting for the general public on the Friday before the election.
First, it said local election boards needed the weekend to prepare for Election Day. Second, it said military voters deserved special treatment because they could be deployed any time, causing them to miss the chance to vote.
The court found neither persuasive.
“The state has shown no evidence indicating how this election will be more onerous than the numerous other elections that have been successfully administered in Ohio since early voting was put into place in 2005,” Clay wrote.
Similarly, the court said, “any voter could be suddenly called away and prevented from voting on Election Day,” including police officers, firefighters and first-responders.
“There is no reason to provide these voters with fewer opportunities to vote than military voters,” Clay wrote.
He added it would be “worrisome” if states “were permitted to pick and choose among groups of similarly situated voters to dole out special voting privileges.”
Clay was nominated by President Bill Clinton, and was joined in the opinion in full by District Judge Joseph Hood, who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush. Circuit Judge Helene White, first nominated by Clinton and then by President George W. Bush in a deal with senators, agreed with the outcome but said she thought the state should get a chance to come up with a remedy for implementing the decision.