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Originally published October 13, 2012 at 5:59 PM | Page modified October 14, 2012 at 1:55 PM

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Supreme Court may decide key Ohio voting case

The Supreme Court may intervene in a case on whether Ohio may allow only military voters to do in-person early voting in the three days before the Nov. 6 election.

The Washington Post

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"A district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit... MORE

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On one side, 15 states have joined Ohio in asking the Supreme Court for emergency protection from federal judges who seek to "micromanage" elections.

On the other, President Obama's re-election committee has invoked the lessons of Bush v. Gore to counter that Ohio is attempting to favor one group of voters above all others.

And now, in a case with legal and political ramifications, the Supreme Court must decide whether to intervene three weeks before the election in a state both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney consider critical to their chances of winning.

The issue is whether Ohio may allow only military voters to take advantage of in-person early voting in the three days before the Nov. 6 election. A district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said the state had not shown why it should differentiate among groups of voters.

"While there is a compelling reason to provide more opportunities for military voters to cast their ballots, there is no corresponding satisfactory reason to prevent nonmilitary voters from casting their ballots as well," the appeals court said. Nearly 100,000 voters cast their ballots previously during the three days in question.

Ohio's request the Supreme Court stay the appeals court decision comes amid an unprecedented number of voting-law changes across the country concerning who is eligible to vote, under what circumstances and how those votes will be counted.

It has led to fierce partisan battles and a string of lawsuits that mostly have been concluded without the high court's intervention. But Ohio wants the justices to set aside the 6th Circuit's ruling and allow its changes to go into effect.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has appealed a lower-court ruling that reinstates early voting on the three days before Election Day and returns discretion to local boards of elections. The Republican also has asked the Supreme Court to delay the lower court's decision while it decides whether to take the case.

Although the state has permitted early voting on the weekend before the election in the past — long lines on Election Day in 2004 prompted the change — the Republican-controlled legislature ended weekend voting this year, saying local boards of election needed the time to prepare. The state made an exception for military voters, who it said could be deployed at any time, and thus miss the chance to vote.

Such decisions, it says, are for each state to make. The 15 states supporting that position — all, like Ohio, have Republican attorneys general — told the court the Constitution's "genius" is to allow states "to consider and implement creative, novel efforts to widen the ability of citizens to vote."

But Ohio Democrats complain that plan is partisan, saying the voters most likely to take advantage of voting on the weekend before the election are women, the poor and older voters. The Obama campaign told the justices the lower courts were right to stop Ohio's plan.

Bob Bauer, the general counsel for Obama for America, wrote in his brief that the system "is as arbitrary as it is unique: nowhere else in the country will an eligible voter be turned away from a single, open polling place because the polling place is open for some voters, but not for that particular voter."

The lower courts' rulings relied in part on Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling that stopped the Florida recount in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The justices have not relied on that ruling in any case since.

But judges in the 6th Circuit have cited the decision's command that "having once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the state may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person's vote over that of another."

The motion before the court is not on the merits of the 6th Circuit's decision but on Ohio's request that it be stayed. The state says it already provides 23 days of early voting — it began on Oct. 2 — and makes it easy for voters to cast their ballots by mail.

But the Obama campaign said the state cannot show any irreparable harm to opening the polls to all voters that weekend.

It points out that the lower court's decision restores the status quo from the 2008 and 2010 elections, and it notes that several large counties have said the extra voting helps alleviate problems from large turnout on Election Day.

Besides, the brief notes, any hardship on the state "is far outweighed by the harm to voters who are arbitrarily denied the right to vote on the same terms as their fellow citizens."

A decision on whether to grant the stay could come at any time. Ohio's plea was sent to Justice Elena Kagan, who is assigned to the 6th Circuit, and she called for the response from the Obama campaign.

Kagan could rule on her own, but in such cases usually the designated justice refers the matter to the entire court.

Military groups backing Ohio include the National Guard Association of the United States, the Association of the U.S. Army, Association of the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps League, and the Military Officers Association of America.

The states that filed in support of Ohio are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Democratic state senators in Ohio also urged the Supreme Court on Friday to reject Husted's appeal.

Includes material from The Associated Press.

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