A federal judge ordered Ohio to open its polling places three days before… (Tony Dejak / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — A federal judge ordered the battleground state of Ohio to open its polling places three days before the Nov. 6 election, giving a victory to the Obama campaign and marking the sixth ruling in recent weeks to block or void new voting rules set by Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Friday's decision restores early voting on the final weekend and Monday before election day, a time when more than 93,000 Ohio voters cast ballots in 2008.
Last week, a three-judge court restored weekend early voting in parts of Florida that are subject to the Voting Rights Act. And on Wednesday, another Florida judge voided part of a state law that would have prevented groups such as the League of Women Voters from registering new voters.
A Texas law was dealt two setbacks earlier this week when federal judges in Washington struck down a strict new photo identification requirement and threw out election districts that undercut the voting power of Latinos and blacks.
Voting-rights advocates hailed what they saw as a rebuke to those who would curb an essential right.
"It shows judges take very seriously the right to vote as fundamental in a democracy. And when politicians manipulate the rules for political purposes, their rules are not entitled to the normal deference," said Penda Hair, a veteran civil rights lawyer for the Advancement Project.
While the November campaigns unfold in public and on the airwaves, teams of election lawyers and civil rights advocates have been fighting in the courts over new rules for casting ballots and counting votes.
The Republican surge in the 2010 election put the GOP in control in states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. And despite fierce opposition from Democrats, their lawmakers adopted a set of changes to election laws. Many of the changes seemed to target voters who were likely to lean toward Democrats.
In the last decade, Florida and Ohio had adopted early voting after close elections that were marred by complaints over long lines at the polling places. President Obama's narrow win in both states was attributed in part to a heavy turnout of African American voters on the weekend before the election. Black churches had organized "souls to the polls" events in which congregants went together to cast ballots.
Last year, the Florida and Ohio legislatures voted to reduce early voting this year and to close the polls on the Friday afternoon before election day.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a former Republican leader in the state House, said early voting on weekdays only would be a "uniform, fair" rule for all 88 counties. But he said military voters and their families could cast ballots on the weekend, subject to a "future directive" from his office.
The Obama campaign sued, arguing that all voters should have an equal right to vote early and in person on the three days before election day. They said that another heavy turnout for the presidential race could leave voters standing in long lines, particularly in urban areas.
U.S. District Judge Peter Economus agreed Friday. "Restoring in-person early voting to all Ohio voters through the Monday before election day returns to voters the same opportunity to vote as previously conferred under Ohio law," he said. Military families will benefit as well because they will be certain the polls in their area will be open, he said.
As a legal precedent, the judge cited the Supreme Court's Bush vs. Gore opinion and its reference to the "right to vote on equal terms." The justices were speaking then of the rules for counting punch-card ballots. After quoting the passage, the judge said the same rule of equal treatment applies to the times for early voting.
Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine said he would appeal to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati. If his appeal is turned down, he could ask the Supreme Court to intervene.
Early this week, another federal judge blocked an election rule in Ohio that caused 14,000 ballots to be thrown out in 2008. The state had said votes cast in the wrong precincts must be discarded, even if the voter went to the right polling place and was directed to the wrong spot. In blocking the rule, the judge noted that a single polling place often serves voters from several precincts.
Both judges in the Ohio cases were appointees of President Clinton.
In the Texas cases, however, judges appointed by President George W. Bush joined opinions that found the state had violated the Voting Rights Act and discriminated against minorities.
Voting-rights advocates are not winning all the cases. A state judge in Pennsylvania recently upheld the state's new photo ID law and said he doubted it would prevent voters from casting ballots. The state Supreme Court is considering an appeal.