The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gave President Barack Obama’s campaign a legal victory in the pivotal state of Ohio, backing early voting rights for the weekend before the Nov. 6 election.
The justices rejected a bid by Ohio Republicans to limit the early voting on those days to members of the military. The rebuff came in a one-line order, with no published dissent.
Democrats and Republicans have jockeyed for months in Ohio over early voting, an option that favored Democratic candidates in 2010 and 2006, according to a 2010 study by the University of Akron. A trial judge cited an estimate that 100,000 Ohioans would vote in the three days leading up to Election Day.
“This action from the highest court in the land marks the end of the road in our fight to ensure open voting this year for all Ohioans, including military, veterans and overseas voters,” Bob Bauer, the Obama campaign’s top lawyer, said in an emailed statement.
No Republican has won the White House without capturing Ohio, which controls 18 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. Polls show a tight race in the state between Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“Democrats are running out of excuses as to why their campaign is slipping away from President Obama in Ohio,” said Chris Maloney, a Romney campaign spokesman. “Momentum and enthusiasm have continued to favor Gov. Romney during early voting.”
The Obama campaign has encouraged early voting in the state and elsewhere. The president plans to cast his ballot in person in Chicago on Oct. 25. First lady Michelle Obama voted Monday.
In previous years, each Ohio county decided whether to offer voting on the weekend before the election. The state’s Republican leadership, through a combination of legislation and a legal interpretation by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, sought to make a statewide change for this year and allow voting that weekend only by military members, who historically favor Republican candidates.
The Obama campaign and Democratic Party sued, claiming the plan violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
A U.S. appeals court in Ohio last week blocked the Republican plan, saying it probably violated the constitutional rights of nonmilitary voters. The Supreme Court justices on Tuesday rejected a challenge to that ruling, filed by Husted and Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Mike DeWine.
After the high court acted, Husted issued a directive to the 88 Ohio county elections boards setting statewide hours for in-person early voting. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 3, 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 4 and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 5.
“Ohio and its elected legislature should set the rules with respect to elections in Ohio, and not the federal court system,” Husted said in an emailed statement. “However, the time has come to set aside the issue for this election.”
Husted and DeWine had said in court papers the limits were warranted to give county boards of election more time to prepare for Election Day and still accommodate the needs of military families.
The appeals court said neither interest was sufficient to justify the change.
The public interest “favors permitting as many qualified voters to vote as possible,” Judge Eric Clay wrote for the three-judge panel.
Blacks, women, the elderly and low-income people heavily use early voting in Ohio, according to the appeals court. All early votes in the state are cast by absentee ballot, either by mail or in person.
In Franklin County, Ohio’s second-largest and home to Columbus, almost 18 percent of all in-person absentee votes in 2008 were cast during the three days before the election. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of almost 4-1 on those final early days, data provided by the county elections board shows.
In Cuyahoga County, the state’s largest and home to Cleveland, 40 percent of all votes cast in 2008 were by absentee ballot — and 20 percent of those were cast in person rather than by mail, according to the county elections board’s website.
While both campaigns are pushing to “bank” early votes from their supporters in Ohio, studies suggest that early voting doesn’t necessarily mobilize voters who weren’t already going to cast a ballot, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
Even so, Beck said, having in-person voting available the last weekend of the campaign could have an affect on what he expects to be a close race in Ohio.
“If there’s any last movement, last excitement in either a Romney or Obama direction, it could make a difference,” Beck said.