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Ohio ordered to restore weekend early voting in judge’s ruling

A federal judge ruled Friday that Ohio must allow in-person voting on the weekend before the presidential election, a victory for Democrats who claimed Republican efforts to close down early voting were aimed at discouraging voters most likely to support President Obama.

The ruling is the second this week on Ohio voting.

Ohio has allowed in-person voting the weekend before the election since 2005, and U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus said Friday that the state did not offer a convincing argument as to why it was changing the rules now. The change contained an exception for military voters, and the Obama campaign and Ohio Democrats said all voters should be allowed to vote on the weekend.

Economus, a senior judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, agreed. “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,” Economus wrote. “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.”

Democrats said 93,000 people voted on the weekend before the 2008 election, and several studies have shown that the elderly, the poor and minorities are more likely to take advantage of voting opportunities offered outside normal business hours.

In passing the law, Ohio’s Republican-led legislature said local boards of elections needed the weekend free to prepare for Election Day. State Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) said he would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The case is one of many filed across the country as a response to new laws relating to voter qualifications and access to the polls. Ohio, a battleground state with a history of close elections, is a priority for both parties.

Earlier this week, a different federal judge threw out another Ohio law that restricted the counting of some ballots. He said the state must count ballots that were improperly filed in the wrong precinct when the fault was with election workers, not the legally registered voter. There were about 14,000 such votes four years ago. Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) decided he would not appeal that order, his spokesman said.

In his order, Economus noted that the exception for military voters and others covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act (UOCAVA) created two classes of voters. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, Economus quoted the ruling’s admonition that “the state may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.” He added, “Here, that is precisely what the state has done.”

Besides, he said, the law left decisions about early in-person voting up to local election boards, meaning even some military voters might not get the opportunity.

“Restoring in-person early voting to all Ohio voters through the Monday before Election Day does not deprive UOCAVA voters from early voting,” the judge wrote. “Instead, and more importantly, it places all Ohio voters on equal standing.”

DeWine said Ohio has “always allowed distinction for military voters, and to say this violates equal protection is wrong.”

He noted that Husted is mailing every voter an absentee ballot that can be used in place of a trip to the polls, and that Ohio was allowing in-person voting beginning Oct. 2.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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