By ANN SANNER, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Barack Obama's re-election campaign on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against Ohio's top elections official in a dispute over the battleground state's law that restricts early, in-person voting during the three days before Election Day.
The lawsuit filed in Columbus comes after a series of election law changes cleared the state's Republican-controlled Legislature and were signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich.
Obama's campaign and Democrats argue that the law unfairly ends early, in-person voting for most Ohioans on the Friday evening before the Tuesday election, while allowing military and overseas voters to cast a ballot in person until Monday.
Before the changes to the law, local boards of election had the discretion to set their own early, in-person voting hours on the days before the election. And in-person voting on the weekend varied among the state's 88 counties.
The state's elections chief, Secretary of State Jon Husted, has argued that all counties should have the same early voting hours and be open on the same days. Husted and his fellow Republicans contend it's unfair that a voter in one county can cast an early ballot on a day when a voter in a neighboring county cannot.
"I didn't see a lawsuit occur when six counties had weekend voting and extended hours and 82 of them didn't," Husted said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm sympathetic to the idea that we should have consistency, because that's exactly what we've been doing on a number of fronts."
Obama for America was joined in the lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party.
Ohio is one of 32 states that allow voters to cast an early ballot by mail or in person without an excuse. About 30 percent of swing state's total vote — or roughly 1.7 million ballots — came in ahead of Election Day in 2008.
Obama won Ohio in last presidential election, but Republican rival Mitt Romney is expected to make a strong play for it.
The state doesn't track its early voters by party, so the stats don't show exactly how much Obama might have benefited from early voting in Ohio. But both parties are sure he did.
An extended voting period is perceived as benefiting Democrats because it increases voting opportunities for those harder to reach for an Election Day turnout — Hispanics, blacks, new citizens and poor people.
It's the first time Obama's re-election campaign has stepped in to challenge changes to the state's election law.
His campaign supporters helped circulate petitions last year in an effort to have voters this fall overturn a contentious bill that overhauled election rules. State lawmakers later repealed that measure, in a move that also reaffirmed a technical change made in a separate bill that resulted in early voting ending on Friday evening before Election Day.
Asked why the lawsuit shouldn't be seen as a political play by the campaign, the state's Democratic Party chairman, Chris Redfern, told reporters Tuesday that he assumes that both parties will be working to get out the vote this fall.
"It's a chilling notion that we should be opposed to those voting in the final three days because they may or may not vote on our side of the issues," said chairman Chris Redfern. "What is important in this lawsuit is that there are two sets of standards — and Ohioans, Americans are offered equal protection."
The state's GOP chairman, Bob Bennett, called the lawsuit "just another circus sideshow."
"Nobody is being disenfranchised here, as Ohio's voters who choose to vote early can do so by mail 24 hours a day, seven days a week or at early voting polls," Bennett said in a written statement.
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