Dan Horn reports:
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted backed down under pressure from a federal judge Friday when he rescinded an order preventing early in-person voting during the final three days before Election Day.
Husted’s decision came days after U.S. District Judge Peter Economus ordered him to appear in court to explain why he issued the prohibition to Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections.
Economus last week declared that “the public interest is served” by allowing voters to cast absentee ballots on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the election.
The judge’s ruling struck down an Ohio law that eliminated early voting for most people. It was a victory for Democrats, who have argued restricted voting hours disproportionately impact poor and minority voters.
Husted, a Republican, said Friday he did not intend to run afoul of the judge’s order when he barred the setting of early voting hours.
“The secretary apologizes to the federal district court for creating that misimpression,” Husted said in a legal brief Friday.
Husted’s spokesman, Matt McClellan, said the secretary gave the order because he planned to set uniform early voting hours for all counties and did not want individual boards of elections to set their own hours before he could act.
“The secretary believed he was taking the initial steps needed to comply,” McClellan said. “Knowing the court’s feeling on the matter, the secretary willingly repealed his directive.”
Husted made clear, however, he will appeal the judge’s decision, creating the potential for a major battle in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati just weeks before Election Day.
President Barack Obama’s campaign filed the lawsuit challenging Ohio’s restrictions on early voting, arguing the law is unconstitutional. Republican legislators approved the law last year and have defended it as both fair and constitutional.
An estimated 93,000 Ohioans voted in person during the final three days before the 2008 presidential election.
The dispute over early voting is part of a broader, national fight between Democrats and Republicans over election rules.Republicans have generally argued more restrictive rules are needed to protect the integrity of the vote. Democrats, however, point out that cases of voter fraud are rare and accuse the GOP of trying to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.
The early voting hours case arose from a GOP-backed measure in 2011 that made several changes to election laws and cut off early in-person voting for most people after 6 p.m. on Nov. 2, the Friday before Election Day.
Republican lawmakers repealed the law after opponents gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to put the issue on the ballot in hopes of overturning it. But when Republicans passed a new law, it still included the prohibition on final weekend voting.
The only exception to the ban was for uniformed military personnel and Americans overseas, who still would be allowed to vote during the three days before the election.
Republicans argued the restrictions for everyone else were necessary because elections officials need several days to prepare for Election Day.
Economus, however, didn’t buy that argument. He said “retracting” early voting after 93,000 people voted that way in 2008 would create a burden that fell most heavily on poor and minority voters.
“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,” Economus wrote in his decision last week.