Election Day arrives in four weeks and one day. Now is the time to end the long argument in Ohio about early voting on the three days before Election Day. The state should embrace the ruling the federal appeals court delivered on Friday, essentially upholding the thinking of federal Judge Peter Economus. This voting option should be available to local boards of election, as it has been since legislature acted in 2005.
The history is worth recalling, as Economus and the appeals court emphasized. In the 2004 election, Ohio encountered severe problems, long lines at the polls, voters all but disenfranchised. In the aftermath, Republicans and Democrats crafted a reasoned response. They established no-fault absentee balloting, opening the way for early voting, including the three days before the election.
Their response worked. In 2008, roughly 1.7 million Ohioans voted early, as many as 100,000 on those final three days. The election proceeded smoothly, as it did in 2006 and 2010 (1 million voting early in the latter year).
Why, then, did Republicans in charge of the Statehouse move to eliminate early voting on those three days? Clearly, there wasn’t a problem with the conduct of elections that required a fix.
The legislature did keep open early voting on the final three days for military personnel and overseas voters. That was the basis of the legal challenge, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party arguing that the law violated the right of equal protection, lawmakers lacking a good reason to treat one group of voters differently.
What reasons did the state put forward? It argued that allowing broad early voting on the final three days poses too great a burden on local boards of elections. The appeals court reminded that boards have handled well the job in the past. It noted the state offered “no evidence indicating how this election will be more onerous,” adding that some counties actually view such early voting as helpful to their operation.
The state also pointed to the unique circumstances of military personnel, in particular, the possibility of deploying at short notice. The appeals court pointed to the many ways military personnel already are accommodated, as they should be. It added that in this instance, they differ little from any other voter who faces an emergency or otherwise cannot get to the polls.
In other words, it is hard to justify giving military voters flexibility but not the rest of us.
Are there multiple ways to vote early, the process having begun last week, the state mailing an absentee ballot application to every voter? Yes, there are. Yet, the appeals court stressed that isn’t sufficient reason to shut down an element of early voting that has served tens of thousands of Ohioans, mostly women, older voters, African-Americans and those with lower incomes.
The ruling leaves the choice to local boards of elections about establishing early voting on the last three days. In view of Republican concerns for military personnel, this should be an easy call. Early voting on the last three days before Election Day should be as widely available as in elections of the recent past. The access helped solve a problem. It reinforces the importance of casting votes.