Ohio, a key swing state, faces court test over early voting

Wed Aug 15, 2012 2:00pm EDT

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters at the Chillicothe Victory rally in Chillicothe, Ohio August 14, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters at the Chillicothe Victory rally in Chillicothe, Ohio August 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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(Reuters) - Lawyers for the Obama campaign will ask a federal court in the battleground state of Ohio on Wednesday to overturn early-voting restrictions they argue disproportionately hurt Democrats.

Ohio, a prized swing state in November's presidential election between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, allows in-person voting to begin October 2. But the state cut off early balloting on the Friday before Election Day, except for members of the military, saying that would prevent fraud and give election boards time to prepare for voting.

Obama's re-election campaign, as well as the Democratic National Committee and Ohio Democratic Party, sued to reinstate early in-person voting throughout the weekend and on the Monday before the November 6 election. The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Columbus, contends that "thousands of Ohio voters ... will suffer direct and irreparable injury from this differential treatment."

Ohio is one of a handful of states that could determine the outcome of the race between Obama and Romney. According to a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released on August 1, Obama holds a 6-point lead in Ohio, 50 percent to 44 percent.

The judge could rule on the issue as early as Wednesday.

The lawsuit is one of two major battles in Ohio over early voting and part of a larger national partisan fight over voting access. Democrats claim that early voting restrictions and stricter voter ID laws are designed to limit Democratic turnout, while Republicans argue the measures are necessary to reduce fraud.

Ohio Democrats are also complaining about limits on early voting enacted in Democratic-leaning counties, but not in Republican-leaning counties.

Early voting and extended voting hours are thought to benefit Democrats, because lower income people, who tend to vote Democrat, also are more likely to work odd hours.

Early voting in Ohio was enacted in 2005 after long lines plagued the 2004 presidential election. Republicans passed legislation last year limiting the practice. The majority of the changes were overturned after opponents threatened to put them to a referendum, but voting on the three days before the election was not restored.

Other rules for early voting - such as allowing voting outside of business hours - are being decided on a county-by-county basis. If there is a tie among county board of elections members, always made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted acts to break the tie.

INCONSISTENT VOTING HOURS

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to Husted Monday asking for uniform statewide rules on early voting hours. The letter also requests he expand evening and weekend voting for all Ohioans.

Husted said he is not sure he has the authority to issue a statewide mandate on voting hours.

"I'm reluctant to make a blanket decision," Husted said. "The boards wanted local control but some are saying now they want centralized control. Nothing in the law gives my office that control."

Two heavily Republican counties - Butler and Warren - voted to stay open extra hours on weekdays and Saturday so residents can cast early votes. But two heavily Democratic counties - Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and Franklin County, which includes the state capital of Columbus - will not be open on Saturdays and only during regular business hours on weekdays.

"There is an interesting pattern developing - in Democratic strongholds when voting is tied and the breaking of the tie goes to the Husted, those counties are eliminating the after-business hours every time," said Jerid Kurtz, spokesperson for the Ohio Democratic Party.

Husted has said he was merely being consistent in deciding to limit voting hours whenever there was a tie.

"In every case I've made the same decision," Husted said.

Zach Manifold, a Democratic member of the Franklin County board of elections, said weekend hours were already included in the budget, but the two Republicans on the board and Husted wouldn't give them any.

"Some of our voters don't have the option to vote from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday," Manifold.

Husted said voting for Ohioans has expanded under his watch, with early voting beginning October 2 at polling locations or by absentee ballot, which for the first time will be sent out to every voter in the state.

(This version of the story corrects the city where case was filed to Columbus from Cincinnati in paragrah three.)

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Dan Burns and Doina Chiacu)

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