(Reuters) - A federal judge issued a ruling on Friday that overturned early voting restrictions in Ohio, handing a victory to President Barack Obama's campaign, which had argued that the restrictions disproportionately hurt Democrats.
Ohio, a prized swing state in the November6 presidential election between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, allows voting in person to begin on October 2. But the state 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.
In granting a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Peter Economus wrote that lawyers for Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted failed to "articulate a precise compelling interest" in establishing a Friday deadline for non-military voters.
"On balance, the right of Ohio voters to vote in person during the last three days prior to Election Day -- a right previously conferred to all voters by the state -- outweighs the state's interest in setting a 6 p.m. deadline," Economus wrote.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a statement that he would appeal the ruling.
Early voting was enacted in Ohio in 2005 after long lines plagued the 2004 presidential election. Republicans passed legislation last year limiting the practice. Most of the changes were overturned after opponents threatened to put them to a referendum, but voting on the three days before the election was not restored.
Obama's re-election campaign, as well as the Democratic National Committee and Ohio Democratic Party, sued to reinstate early in-person voting throughout the weekend and on the Monday before the November 6 election.
Democrats contended that about 93,000 Ohio voters used that time period for voting in the 2008 election year.
State Representative Alicia Reece, a Democrat from Cincinnati, praised the judge's decision.
"I would urge Secretary of State Husted not to appeal the decision and to comply with the orders of the court which will ensure all Ohio voters have equal opportunities to get to the polls and have their voices heard," Reece said.
Ohio is one of a handful of states that could determine the outcome of the race between Obama and Romney. According to a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released on August 1, Obama holds a 6-point lead in Ohio, 50 percent to 44 percent.
Democrats say early voting restrictions and stricter voter ID laws are designed to limit Democratic turnout, while Republicans argue the measures are necessary to reduce fraud.
Early voting and extended voting hours are thought to benefit Democrats, because lower income people, who tend to vote Democratic, also are more likely to work odd hours.
Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson