When the Obama campaign filed suit to restore three days of early voting in Ohio the weekend before the election, it was supposed to be about increasing access for the thousands of Ohioans expected to take advantage of those final 72 hours to cast their ballots.
But the campaign has inadvertently stepped into a minefield, aggravating a group that no commander-in-chief wants to upset — military voters, who fear they could lose access to other special accomodations if Obama and the Democrats prevail.
The campaign filed its lawsuit after the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature eliminated early voting on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before the election — except for military personnel. With Ohio’s 18 critical electoral votes at stake, the Obama campaign, in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party, decided to challenge the cutoff.
The argument is straightforward on its face: All Ohioans deserve to be able to vote on those three final days. The legal argument is that if active-duty military service members can vote the weekend before Election Day, that right should be extended to all eligible Ohioans under the Constitution’s equal-protection clause. “Whether caused by legislative error or partisan motivation, the result of this legislative process is arbitrary and inequitable treatment of similarly situated Ohio voters with respect to in-person early voting,” the complaint reads.
Enter disgruntled military groups and the latest round of finger-pointing and accusation-hurling by both campaigns. Fifteen military groups, including the National Guard Association of the United States, AMVETS, and the Marine Corps League, filed a motion to join the lawsuit last week on the side of Ohio’s Secretary of State and ask that it be dismissed. They received permission to join the suit late on Monday.
“The Obama campaign’s and Democratic National Committee’s argument that it is arbitrary and unconstitutional to afford special consideration, flexibility, and accommodations to military voters to make it easier for them to vote in person is not only offensive, but flatly wrong as a matter of law,” the organizations said in their motion.
Democrats contend the restrictions in Ohio are part of a nationwide effort on the part of Republicans to suppress the votes of those who tend to vote early and who also tend to vote for Democrats: minorities, low-income workers, and even women. “They’re trying to strip away the franchise from 93,000 Ohioans,” Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told National Journal, referring to the number of voters in the Buckeye State who cast their ballots the weekend before Election Day in 2008. “If you can’t win an election the right way, the Republicans are going to try to win it in a wrong away.”
Opponents of the lawsuit said the issue wasn’t about Ohio or electoral votes or voter suppression, but that they were concerned the Obama campaign’s argument, if upheld, would set a legal precedent that would make it more difficult to make special accommodations for military service members in other states and other arenas.
“It’s not necessarily a problem with trying to expand voting rights to other citizens of Ohio. The real concern is that in order to expand those rights, they’re making arguments that are detrimental to military voters,” said Eric Eversole, executive director of the Military Voter Protection Project. “The equal-protection argument fails to recognize the obstacles that service members face even when they attempt to vote.”
Eversole said he fears what kind of repercussions such an argument would have. In particular, he mentioned residency requirements for voting, which are different in some places for active-duty military, and hiring preferences for service members returning to the workforce.
A spokesman for the National Guard Association lamented the politicization of the issue. His organization and others decided to join the lawsuit not because they were interested in delivering Ohio for Obama or Romney, he said, but to give their members a say in a decision that would impact their lives. “Everyone is sort of twisting it for their own purpose,” Goheen said. “Do we have any concerns that the early voting will stay in place and every Ohioan will be able to vote the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before the election? No, that’s fine.”
That, of course, didn’t stop the Romney campaign from accusing the Obama campaign of trying to restrict early voting for military service members and denouncing their legal argument as “dangerous and offensive.”
“It is not only constitutional, but commendable that the Ohio Legislature granted military voters and their families this accommodation. It is despicable for the Obama campaign to challenge Ohio’s lawful decision,” Katie Biber, general counsel for the Romney campaign, wrote in a memo.
Cue up another round of denunciations from Democrats. “I’m dumbfounded what Mitt Romney is trying to pull,” said former Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, an Iraq war veteran, in a conference call organized by the liberal Center for American Progress. “He’s trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and trying to use our veterans as props.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a U.S. Army veteran and senior adviser to the National Security Network, compared it the effort in 2004 to discredit Democrat John Kerry with military voters. “The swift-boating approach to political attacks is where we’ve unfortunately evolved, and that’s part and parcel the political climate that we have today,” he said.