If Ferris Bueller taught us anything, it was this: If you're going to lie or mislead, do it in a big, over-the-top kind of way. At least it'll be memorable.
It's a lesson Mitt Romney's campaign took to heart this past weekend. But instead of stealing a Ferrari or taking over a parade, they opted for something much darker. Halfway through the general-election campaign, attacks from both campaigns have been so relentless as to make each one fade into a low background buzz. Getting something to cut through the noise is hard. So when President Obama's campaign filed a lawsuit to restore the rights to all Ohio citizens to cast early ballots up until the Sunday before Election Day—a right that the Ohio legislature had restricted to active-duty military personnel casting their ballots in person—the Romney side decided to go all in with a charge so outlandish it was bound to capture attention.
"President Obama's lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state's early voting period is an outrage," the Republican candidate's Facebook message proclaimed. Next came a statement from the campaign: "We Must Defend the Rights of Military Voters." Right-wing bloggers took it from there, and the outraged headlines came pouring forth. When 15 military groups filed paperwork to be interveners in the case, requesting that the Obama campaign's suit be dismissed in court, the whole thing really caught fire.
After months of backing voting restrictions—like voter ID laws that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands across the country—you almost have to admire the chutzpah of the Romney campaign for lashing out against Obama on the issue of voting rights, and accusing him of restricting military voters. Particularly because the charge is entirely untrue.
If there's one thing that's certain in Ohio, it's that voters in the military will have the right to vote on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before the November 6 election—no matter what happens with Obama's lawsuit. Active-duty soldiers who are stationed outside of Ohio still get to send in their ballots, too. It's the rest of the state—including a much larger number of veterans and military families—whose early-voting rights the Obama campaign is suing to protect. The president wants to ensure that all Ohio voters can vote early, as they could in 2008. Ohio's Republican leadership wants to keep it limited to active military—making voting harder for everyone else, and likely decreasing turnout among poorer and likely Democratic voters. But they still want points for patriotism!
While the motivations for the skirmish are almost entirely political, the fight will have a real impact on voters in one of the nation's most fiercely contested battleground states. So let's break it all down:
What exactly is the Obama campaign suing over?
Thanks to its status as a key swing state, many will remember the infamous Election Day lines at Ohio polling stations. After it got particularly horrendous in 2004, the state extended its early voting period to ease the pressure at the polls. Famously in 2008, black church congregations showed up en masse to vote for Obama on the Sunday before the election; around 93,000 Ohioans voted in the three days before the election. There's nothing unusual about this: Across the country, early voting has been successfully adopted by most states as a way to increase turnout and make Election days go more smoothly. The extra days particularly help those without access to transportation or with inflexible job schedules—poorer voters who tend to vote Democratic.
But after Obama's win, Republicans began promoting a voter-restriction strategy across the country, including Ohio. The state's majority-Republican legislature passed a bunch of new voting laws in in 2011. Among other things, they halted early voting on the Friday before the election; it had previously continued until Monday, the day before the election. But as the Washington Post explains, "there was a problem: The measures contained conflicting deadlines for military personnel and their families, who benefit from the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act." To resolve the conflict, Ohio's secretary of state determined that while military voters would get to vote through Monday, the rest of the state would have an early voting deadline three days earlier. In other words, while an active-duty solider could cast a ballot on the Sunday before an election, a military veteran, like the rest of the state's voters, could not.
And that's where the lawsuit comes in?
Right. The Obama campaign argues that all state voters should have the same deadline: the Monday before Election Day. By creating two different classes of voters, the Obama campaign argues, Ohio now violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. "Whether caused by legislative error or partisan motivation," the lawsuit reads, "the result of this legislative process is arbitrary and inequitable treatment of similarly situated Ohio voters with respect to in-person early voting."
The Romney campaign is charging that, by calling for equal treatment for all Ohio voters, the Obama campaign is saying that it's unconstitutional for military voters to have extended early voting priviledges. That's patently false. "They're not asking for the court to somehow withdraw the rights of military and overseas voters," says Sonia GIll, an associate council for the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "They're asking for the rest of Ohioans to have the same rights afforded in-person military voters."
Meanwhile, military voters overseas or in combat will not be impacted one way or another—they can still send in absentee ballots as always.
But if military voters aren't be affected, why are military groups working to have the lawsuit dismissed?
Good question. Fifteen groups representing active soldiers have "intervened" in the Obama campaign's suit, asking that the judge dismiss the case. The groups are afraid that the campaign's argument will undercut privileges for members of the military: "Although the relief Plaintiffs seek is an overall extension of Ohio's early voting period," their motion to intervene states, "the means through which Plaintiffs are attempting to attain it—a ruling that it is arbitrary and unconstitutional to grant extra time for early voting solely to military voters and overseas citizens—is both legally inappropriate and squarely contrary to the legal interests and constitutional rights of [the military groups intervening]."
In other words, the government must be allowed to make accommodations to military voters that are not made for the rest of the population, even when the military voters in question are voting in-person in their state. (Calls to two of the groups in the suit were not returned.)
But the government already makes special accomodations for military voters—thanks in part to President Obama. He signed the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which made a number of extra voting guarantees to servicemen and women overseas. For example, military bases now must have voter-registration services, and those serving overseas are allowed to send and receive their applications for voter registration and absentee ballots by email or fax as well as through the mail.
But when it comes to the lawsuit, it's Team Obama versus a united military and Team Romney?
Hardly. When it comes to special privileges on U.S. soil, many have argued against the groups intervening in the Ohio lawsuit. Diane Mazur, a law professor at the University of Florida and a former Air Force officer, told Buzzfeed that the groups' argument is "extremely misleading." While military voters get special privileges when away on duty and voting absentee, Mazur says there's no history of providing particular accomodations to military voters casting a ballot in person. "The idea that service member are fuller citizens than the rest of America is a disaster for military professionalism," she says.
Jon Stoltz, who heads the group VoteVets, has been outspoken in support of the Obama campaign's lawsuit. "What appalled me so much about the narrative in Ohio," he said on a telephone call with reporters, "is that the Romney campaign is supporting legislation that actually denies 900,000 veterans in the state of Ohio the right to vote early."