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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.

Before the law, local boards of elections previously set early voting hours on those three final days. And weekday hours and weekend voting varied among the state's counties.

Democrats estimated in their lawsuit that 93,000 people voted during the final three-day window before the 2008 election.

Husted spokesman Matt McClellan said Tuesday that the secretary of state was also weighing how to proceed in a separate case in which a federal judge ordered the state to change its rules for counting provisional ballots to ensure that more of them can be cast in the upcoming presidential election.

At issue are requirements for when a poll worker is permitted to reject a provisional ballot, typically a ballot cast in the wrong precinct.

McClellan said Husted will likely not challenge the judge's order that addresses poll worker mistakes, such as disqualifying the ballot of a properly registered voter who goes to the correct polling place but is mistakenly directed to an area of the polling place where votes for other precincts are being cast.

But McClellan said it was likely Husted would challenge the part of the order that makes it more difficult for provisional ballots to be rejected on technical grounds, such as the envelope in which the ballot is placed lacking the proper signature.

Meanwhile, a Washington-based conservative watchdog group said Tuesday that it's also suing Husted for failing under federal law to maintain accurate voter registration lists. Judicial Watch said in a lawsuit filed last week that certain counties have more registered voters than the total voting age population in those counties.

McClellan said Husted has removed more than 19,000 deceased voters and hundreds of thousands of duplicates since taking office in January 2011. "Our voter rolls are in the best shape they've been in in years," he said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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