Judge Restores Extra Early Voting Days In Ohio

A federal judge has ruled that an Ohio law which would change early voting rules cannot take effect. The law would limit early voting in the final days before an election to military personnel. Pam Fessler talks to Melissa Block.

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President Obama's re-election campaign won a big victory today in Ohio. A federal judge in Columbus has ordered the state to restore early voting in the three days prior to the November election. The state had eliminated it, except for voters in the military, and Ohio's attorney general insists he will appeal.

NPR's Pam Fessler has been covering this story. She joins me now. And, Pam, why is it such a big deal for the Obama campaign?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, it's a big deal because lots of people in Ohio like to vote early. And in 2008, most of those voters were Democratic. Some estimates are that about 93,000 voted during the final weekend before the 2008 presidential elections. And so in such crucial state like Ohio, this could really make a big difference. In this particular case, the Obama campaign argued that it was unfair to allow members of the military to vote during these three days but not to allow other voters to do the same.

And as you might recall, Republican Mitt Romney and some military groups blasted the president's campaign for taking this position in the suit, arguing that they were trying to restrict military voting rights when the campaign, in fact, said that they were trying to expand it for everyone else. The state of Ohio said that service members already enjoy some voting privileges because of their uncertain schedules and if those privileges should be allowed to continue in this particular case.

And they also said they wanted to cut back early voting for everyone else, because it's a big burden for election officials in the few days right before the election when they're trying to get prepared.

BLOCK: And I gather the state lost that argument in court. What did the judge say in his opinion?

FESSLER: Well, it was U.S. District Judge - District Court Judge Peter Economus. And he said that allowing only some voters to cast ballots during these three days abridge, quote, "the right of citizens to participate equally in elections." And he rejected the state's argument that it would be a big burden to keep the polling places open for these three days. So he not only issued a preliminary injunction against the state plan, he actually ordered the state to restore in-person early voting on these three days. He noted that there was a lot of confusion about this law restricting the voting that it - initially it had been they wanted to eliminate for everybody.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

FESSLER: But there was a lot of ambiguity. So, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted came up with this plan. And he said what he wanted to do was impose uniformity across the state because previously some counties had allowed early voting in this last weekend and other counties hadn't. And people just complained that was unfair. So he said he wanted to level the playing field. Well...

BLOCK: The judge said, yeah.

FESSLER: Well, Husted said that. And then the judge said - he used those exact same words that if you want to level the playing field, then you should level it for everybody.

BLOCK: For everybody. So, Pam, what happens now?

FESSLER: Well, the state attorney general, Mike DeWine, said this afternoon that he's going to appeal and we'll probably hear that appeal pretty quickly because we're getting so close to the election.

BLOCK: Yeah.

FESSLER: But this isn't the only case involving Ohio voting that's up in the air right now. Earlier this week, another federal judge ruled against an Ohio law that allows provisional ballots to be rejected if they're cast in the wrong polling place, even if the poll worker sent the voter to the wrong place and it wasn't the voter's fault. And that case, too, could be appealed. So, here we are just a few weeks or a couple of months before the election and we don't really know what the rules are going to be in this very important swing state.

BLOCK: And a lot of other cases out there, too. Keeping you busy.

FESSLER: Exactly.

BLOCK: Pam Fessler, thanks so much.

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