Ohio boards can’t set final hours of early voting

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state election chief on Tuesday barred counties from setting voting hours on disputed early-voting days, saying that establishing new times would confuse voters while a legal battle brought by President Barack Obama’s campaign continues.

A federal judge last week granted a request from the campaign to give all voters in the key swing state the option of casting their ballots in person during the three days before Election Day.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Tuesday in a court filing that he’s appealing the decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

At issue is a part of the state’s law that cuts off early voting for most residents on the Friday evening before a Tuesday election. The law makes an exception for military personnel and Ohio voters living overseas.

Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a directive to boards on Tuesday, saying they were “strictly prohibited” from determining hours for the Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday before the election because a court could later change them.

“Announcing new hours before the court case reaches final resolution will only serve to confuse voters,” he said, adding that it would also conflict with his previous order that established uniform hours for the state.

Husted, a Republican, has directed election boards in Ohio’s 88 counties to have the same early in-person voting hours on weekdays and have no hours on weekends. He said he’s confident there will be enough time for him at the conclusion of the appeals process to set hours on the final days before the Nov. 6 election.

Democrats criticized DeWine and Husted’s actions on Tuesday, accusing them of being determined to limit voting opportunities.

“Republicans should stop playing partisan games with our elections in a cynical attempt to sway the outcome,” Eric Kearney, the state Senate’s Democratic leader, said in a written statement.

U.S. District Judge Peter Economus in Columbus issued a preliminary injunction on Friday, concluding that the state’s law was unconstitutional in changing the in-person early voting deadline and that the state was wrongly valuing certain votes above others.

The judge’s ruling said he expected Husted to direct all county elections boards to maintain a specific, consistent schedule on those three days “in keeping with his earlier directive that only by doing so can he ensure that Ohio’s election process is ‘uniform, accessible for all, fair, and secure.’”

Obama’s campaign and Democrats had sued Husted and DeWine over the law. They argued everyone should have the chance to vote on those three days before the election. They said a series of legislative changes by state lawmakers had arbitrarily eliminated the opportunity for most Ohio residents to vote in person on those days, while giving military or overseas voters the chance to do so.

Attorneys for the state have said many laws already grant military personnel special voting accommodations, such as requirements for states to send absentee ballots to them 45 days before the election. And they contend local boards also need those three days to prepare for the election.

But the judge said the voters’ right to cast ballots in person on those days outweighs the state’s reasons for limiting that opportunity.

Ohio is among 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast early ballots in person without having to give reasons.

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