More than 1.7 million Ohioans voted before Election Day in the 2008 presidential election — about 30 percent of all ballots cast.
And nearly 100,000 of them voted in-person in the final three days before the November election.
Noting the significance of those numbers, President Barack Obama’s campaign filed a federal lawsuit in Columbus on Wednesday, seeking to restore the three days of early voting prior to Election Day that the GOP-controlled legislature eliminated earlier this year.
The suit was the first legal action Obama’s campaign has filed in this election.
“This lawsuit seeks to treat all Ohio citizens equally under the law,” Bob Bauer, the attorney for Obama for America, the president’s campaign committee, said during a conference call with reporters. “We want to restore the right of all to vote before Election Day.”
The campaign says changes the Ohio General Assembly made created inequality among military and overseas voters, who can cast early ballots through the day before the election, and all other voters, who have until 6 p.m. on the Friday before the election to vote in-person absentee. This, the campaign contends, is a violation of the equal protection provision of the U.S. Constitution.
“Without early voting in these last three days before Election Day, tens of thousands of citizens who would have otherwise exercised their right to vote during this time period, including the plaintiffs’ members and supporters, may not be able to participate in future elections at all,” the campaign’s complaint states.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who is named in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview Tuesday his office has tried to bring about uniformity among the counties, including sending out absentee ballot applications to all voters before the general election this year and by ruling that boards may allow in-person early voting only during normal hours, rather than for the extended hours that were offered in previous elections in certain counties, including Summit.
Husted said if the campaign’s suit were successful, it would open the way for disparity among the counties, with some potentially pushing to be open for extended hours on the weekend and the day before the election and others choosing not to.
“If this lawsuit were to prevail, we would be back to a system that allows voters in one county to be treated different from another county,” he said. “I embrace the idea of equal protection and treating the voters the same.”
In an unusual turn of events, the Ohio General Assembly passed an election reform law that included a provision cutting off in-person early voting after 6 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day. A committee, supported by Democrats and voter’s rights advocates circulated petitions, then gathered more than 300,000 signatures to get a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to repeal the law.
Ohio legislators, at Husted’s urging, voted to repeal the election law that was the subject of the referendum. The early voting restriction remained in play, however, because it had been inserted into another piece of legislation Gov. John Kasich signed into law in May.
The jumble of events was expected to draw legal challenges.
Joining the Obama campaign in the lawsuit were the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party. The suit was filed against Husted and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. The case has been assigned to Judge Peter Economus.
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, said Tuesday afternoon his office is reviewing the filing. He declined further comment.
Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said in an email Tuesday that “no one is being disenfranchised” as they still have ample time to vote early by mail or in-person at elections boards. Early voting in Ohio begins Oct. 2.
The legislature expanded absentee voting in Ohio after the 2004 presidential election that saw long lines, with some voters waiting up to seven hours and others giving up and going home. The first presidential election that allowed early voting without a special reason was four years ago, when nearly 21 percent of all registered voters in Ohio cast absentee ballots.
“Some today are threatening to take us back to the relics of a different era,” Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a conference call.
Asked whether the party’s suit is politically motivated, Redfern said both parties will have get-out-the-vote efforts.
“It’s a chilling notion that someone would be opposed to allowing early voting because of how a person may or may not vote,” he said.
Husted said the reasons for the legislature’s decision to eliminate in-person early voting for the days immediately preceding the election were to give elections boards time to prepare for Election Day and to help with uniformity among the boards.
Husted soon will decide issues related to early voting in Summit County, where the board of elections deadlocked on whether to have an outside location for in-person early voting — which was offered in 2008 and November 2010 — and where this extra site should be if one is mandated.
“The issues we’ve been confronting in Summit are more complicated,” Husted said. “It will take more time to sort it out.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com.