Ohio Rally
President Barack Obama at a rally in Ohio Reuters

A federal appeals court panel on Friday ruled that Ohio counties can keep polls open for early in-person voting the weekend before Election Day, a win for the Obama campaign, which has spent months in court challenging the battleground state’s election rules.

The campaign challenged a state law that would have ended early voting the final weekend before the presidential election for everyone except military voters, one of a slew of restrictions instituted by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature last year. Critics alleged the move was an effort to dissuade minorities, who reportedly make greater use of early voting than nonminorities, from casting their ballot.

Ohio, for its part, had offered two reasons for limiting early voting: First, it said local election boards needed the weekend to prepare for Election Day. Second, it claimed that only military voters deserved the right to vote early because they could theoretically be deployed from the country at any time, making it more likely they could miss their chance to vote.

Early in-person voting in the state began on Tuesday.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on Friday said Ohio has not demonstrated why voting during the three-day period before the election should only be offered to one demographic.

"While there is a compelling reason to provide more opportunities for military voters to cast their ballots, there is no corresponding satisfactory reason to prevent non-military voters from casting their ballots as well,” wrote Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay. “The public interest ... favors permitting as many qualified voters to vote as possible.”

However, the decision is not clear-cut. While all voters must be allowed to participate in the early voting period if it is offered, the opinion said the decision could be left up to individual Ohio counties.

Studies suggest early voting periods tend to benefit Democrats. In dense urban populations with unreliable voting blocs, early voting can give elderly, poor and minority voters -- who are more likely to affiliate themselves with the Democratic Party -- more time to cast their ballot.

“Every voter, including military, veterans, and overseas voters alongside all Ohioans, will have the same opportunity,” Obama campaign General Counsel Bob Bauer said in a statement after the decision.

Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have been courting Ohio voters as Nov. 5 approaches. Ohio, a swing state with 18 electoral votes, could play a pivotal role in determining who takes the White House next month.

Romney, for his part, originally alleged the lawsuit was part of the Obama administration’s plan to restrict military voting in Ohio.

“If I’m entrusted to be the commander-in-chief, I’ll work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them,” Romney said in August.