Voting rights issue heats up in battleground states Ohio, Pennsylvania

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 15, 2012 7:01 PM
Voting rights issue heats up in battleground states Ohio, Pennsylvania

By Terry Baynes and Kim Palmer

(Reuters) - A Pennsylvania judge handed Democrats a setback on Wednesday when he upheld the election battleground state's controversial voter identification law, which civil rights groups argued discriminates against minority voters.

The Pennsylvania court ruling came as lawyers for the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama's re-election campaign asked a federal judge in neighboring Ohio to overturn that swing state's decision to curtail early voting rights.

The two states, called swing states because they do not consistently support either major party, are big electoral prizes in the November 6 presidential election between Democrat Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Recent polls show both are in play.

Pennsylvania is one of 11 states to pass laws since 2010 requiring voters to show some form of legal identification. The laws have become a contentious issue since both parties see voter turnout as vital in swing states, and Democrats fear voter ID laws disproportionately curtail balloting by lower-income and minority voters, who typically favor their party.

Civil and voting rights groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, had sought a preliminary injunction to block the Pennsylvania law, arguing it erects unfair hurdles for many legitimate Pennsylvania voters who lack an acceptable form of identification.

Supporters, including the Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Governor Tom Corbett, argued the law is necessary to prevent fraud and to keep non-citizens from voting.

In a 70-page ruling, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson found the civil rights groups failed to show that the law was unconstitutional under all circumstances since it applied to all qualified voters, requiring them to present a photo ID that can be obtained for free. Judges would also be stationed at polling places on Election Day to resolve individual disputes, he added.

While Simpson acknowledged that political interests may have motivated the legislators who voted for the law, that did not make the law unconstitutional, he said. The judge left open the possibility that specific individuals could try again to block the law by showing that they were prevented from voting.

The Advancement Project, one of the groups behind the suit, said it would appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

"I just can't believe it," Viviette Applewhite, the 93-year-old lead plaintiff, said in a statement. "Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this," said Applewhite, an African American who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

The chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, Rob Gleason, applauded the court's decision.

"Voter disenfranchisement is only a risk if we don't turn our attention and efforts toward helping every voter in Pennsylvania comply with this new law," he said in a statement.

OHIO EARLY VOTING RULE CHANGE CONTESTED

In Ohio, meanwhile, lawyers for the Obama campaign asked a federal judge to restore full early voting rights to all registered voters in the state.

Ohio allows in-person voting to begin October 2. But in a change from the 2008 election, Ohio's Republican-led General Assembly voted to 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 last month to reinstate early in-person voting throughout the weekend and on the Monday before Election Day. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus.

"I think it is a bedrock principle that when the polls are open, they're open to all," Obama campaign attorney Robert F. Bauer told the court, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Republicans countered that the law already treats military voters differently, and having different cut-off dates for in-person early voting is justifiable.

"There is an easily rational basis for providing special accommodations for the military," said William Consovoy, an attorney representing Secretary of State Jon Husted, according to the Dispatch. "And that is all that is required."

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus did not immediately rule on the issue at Wednesday's hearing. He did not say when he would issue a ruling.

Late in the day, however, Husted appeared to back down in a related spat with Democrats about inconsistent hours for early voting in different counties across the state.

That issue emerged recently when two heavily Republican counties - Butler and Warren - voted to stay open extra hours on weekdays and Saturday so residents can cast early votes.

But elections officials in two heavily Democratic counties - Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and Franklin County, which includes the state capital of Columbus - deadlocked over whether to have similar extended hours. Husted broke the tie as required under state law, but sided with Republicans who had opposed the extra hours in both Democrat-leaning counties, causing an outcry from the Obama campaign and Democratic officials around the state.

Late on Wednesday, Husted ordered all 88 counties in Ohio to keep the same hours for early voting: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for the first three weeks starting October 2 and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday for the final two weeks, with the final Friday to close an hour earlier at 6 p.m.

(Editing by Dan Burns and Jackie Frank)