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Bush v. Gore could aid Obama Ohio win

– One part of the story of the 2012 voting wars is well known: Republican legislatures have passed a series of laws making it at least modestly harder for people to vote. Less well-known is that courts have reined in some of these excesses.

The judicial record has been decidedly mixed. Pennsylvania’s law will likely be approved by the 2014 elections, courts have allowed Republican secretaries of state to pursue purges of noncitizens from voting rolls despite ample evidence that the lists erroneously included many eligible voters, and federal courts recently refused to roll back Texas’ tough new registration rules.

But the fight over Ohio’s election laws tells a different story.

The Buckeye State has seen a rather remarkable string of wins for voting-rights supporters. Federal courts have ordered the expansion of early voting and saved the votes of potentially thousands of voters who would have been disenfranchised because of poll worker errors. Even more remarkably, the decisions from Democratic and Republican judges alike have relied on a very broad reading of Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that ended the 2000 Florida recount. In fact, if President Obama narrowly ekes out a win in Ohio, he might have the conservative Supreme Court justices from 2000 – Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – to thank for the victory.

In Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court stopped the recount of votes ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, the most conservative justices on the court, argued that the recount violated Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which gives state legislatures the power to set the rules for choosing presidential electors. These justices said Florida’s recount violated Article II because it was done under standards set by the state’s judiciary, not its legislature.

Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy rested their rationale for ending the recount on the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, claiming that the changing and haphazard recount standards were arbitrary and “valued one person’s vote over that of another.” The court pointed to all kinds of problems and inconsistencies with the way various state counting boards were handling “punch card ballots.”

Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas signed on to this opinion too – otherwise there would not have been a majority endorsing any single reason for stopping the recount. It is this majority-supported Equal Protection holding that is now helping Obama in the home stretch of the 2012 race.

For years, voting rights advocates have tried to make lemonade from lemons, arguing that the Equal Protection holding of Bush v. Gore should apply more broadly to require equality and uniformity in conducting elections.

Until recently, these attempts have mostly met with failure.

But in the past few years the opinion has been resurrected by the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, the federal appellate court that includes Ohio. In one recent case, a federal judge required Ohio to restore the last weekend of early voting, relying in part on Bush v. Gore’s equal protection principles.

One of the appellate judges went so far as to say that the reason Ohio could not take the early voting days away is because the state had a bad history of long lines at the polls in 2004, and the early voting in 2008 seemed to clear up this problem. That was an incredibly broad extension of equal protection principles.

Election law scholar Ned Foley, writing before the trial court’s decision in the case, explained how under existing precedent the state should have won this case. Courts had long allowed states to draw distinctions among classes of voters with different burdens, and let states change rules such as early voting hours for any legitimate reason.

Bush v. Gore also played an important role in the case in which the 6th Circuit held that Ohio must count provisional ballots cast in the right polling location but the wrong “precinct” (which could be simply another table in the same gymnasium) because of poll-worker error.

The state of Ohio has not yet decided whether it will take this case to the Supreme Court, but it has just decided to appeal a new follow-up ruling from the trial court in this case holding that even ballots cast because of poll-worker error in the wrong polling location (as opposed to merely the wrong precinct within a location) also must be counted. If the election goes into overtime, I expect the state will continue to fight this ruling. Provisional ballots won’t even be counted until Nov.17, leaving plenty of time for litigation – and potentially the entire country hearing about the intricacies of Ohio election law as we await the winner of the presidential election.

But in the meantime, these two rulings in Ohio could help give Obama the edge. What the Republican legislatures have taken away, the federal courts, including some Republican judges, have restored, relying in part on the arguments conservative justices endorsed in Bush v. Gore.

Richard L. Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the U.C. Irvine School of Law and author of “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.” He writes the Election Law Blog.