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In blow to Romney, court says Ohio can’t restrict 'souls to the polls' voting by blacks

A federal appeals court says an Ohio decision to allow only military personnel three days of early voting is unconstitutional. It could help Obama and hurt Romney in a critical swing state.

By Staff writer / October 6, 2012

A supporter chants "four more years" as President Barack Obama speaks at campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday.

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ATLANTA

The Obama administration scored another voting rights win on Friday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said the key swing state of Ohio can’t single out military voters for special treatment – a ruling that will re-open a three-day weekend voting period that’s become known to black voters as the “souls to the polls” program.

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Most Electoral College analysis lists Ohio as the most critical swing state for Mitt Romney. The Rasmussen Reports poll had Romney trailing Obama by 1 point in Ohio after Wednesday night's debate. It’s widely believed that military voters are likely to favor Romney while other voters who take advantage of early voting at higher than average rates – minorities, the elderly and the poor – have stronger attachments to Democrats.

The Romney campaign this summer seized on the Obama administration’s decision to confront Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted, about the decision to close weekend voting to all but military members as a slap against the military. (Husted said he did it at the behest of election officials who wanted the weekend before the election to prepare the polls.) But the campaign said it was about equal opportunity, and the federal circuit court largely agreed.

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“The public interest … favors permitting as many qualified voters to vote as possible,” wrote federal Circuit Judge Eric Clay. Judge Clay said it would be “worrisome” if states “were permitted to pick and choose among groups of similarly situated voters to dole out special voting privileges.”

The focus across the nation on integrity and access to polls highlights the massive stakes for both parties around new voter registration and turnout.

While Republicans in 18 states have since last year instituted a slew of voter ID and voter registration rules in an attempt to ensure a clean election, the courts continue to frown on those, in 11 cases so far ruling in favor of easy access over fraud fears. Voter ID laws have been struck down in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, and courts have ruled against strict voter registration rules Florida.

“In the presidential race, it’s hand-to-hand legal combat, with almost every battleground state embroiled in a struggle over voter eligibility,” writes media critic Jonathan Alter in an op-ed for Bloomberg News.

In Ohio, early voting, including on the weekends, has become very popular, especially among blacks. Over 13 percent of the entire black vote came during the early voting period in 2008, compared to 8 percent of white voters who voted early. In all, 93,000 Ohioans voted in the three days leading up to the 2008 Election Day.

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