Ohio Loses Another Voting Rights Case, This Time Over Absentee Ballots

by | June 8, 2016

By Darrel Rowland

Ohio Republicans lost another federal lawsuit today over their attempts to restrict Ohioans' voting rights.

Judge Algenon L. Marbley of U.S. District Court in Columbus ruled that state officials violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Democratic appointee's decision today echoes that of GOP appointed Judge Michael H. Watson late last month on a separate case that restored a "Golden Week" of early voting Republicans had eliminated.

Marbley also banned enforcement of several sections of state law dealing with absentee and provisional voting procedures that caused ballots to be thrown out even for "trivial" paperwork errors such as an error in listing date of birth.

While members of the GOP-dominated legislature may not have intentionally set out to racially discriminate when they passed the new laws subsequently signed by Gov. John Kasich, that was the effect, the judge concluded.

"Make no mistake: the court is deeply troubled by the flurry of voting-related legislation introduced during the time period in question, all of which sought to limit the precious right to the franchise in some manner, and most of which was a peripatetic solution in search of a problem. The court agrees, moreover, that the Republican-controlled General Assembly's frenetic pace of introducing such legislation reflects questionable motives, given the wealth of other problems facing the state which actually needed solutions.

"If the dog whistles in the General Assembly continue to get louder, courts considering future challenges to voting restrictions in Ohio may very well find that intentional discrimination is afoot."

The Ohio Democratic Party pressed the suit, originally brought by a pair of organizations for the homeless. Defendants were Secretary of State Jon Husted and Attorney General Mike DeWine in their roles enacting and defending a pair of laws passed by the GOP-dominated state legislature.

Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said in a statement: "For the second time in less than a month, Ohio voters have won a huge victory in the courts, and Secretary of State Jon Husted is being forced to stop making it harder for Ohioans to vote and for every vote to be counted. This trial showed quite clearly that every lawfully cast vote was not being counted here in Ohio. Many lawfully registered Ohioans have had their votes cast aside because of new and unnecessary requirements that were shown to be discriminatory. ... It's time for Husted, Kasich and Ohio Republicans to stop violating our constitutional right to vote."

Much of the lawsuit revolved around inconsistencies in how ballots are handled throughout the state.

Marbley said he gave great weight to one expert's conclusions "that across all even-numbered election years, minorities use provisional ballots more often than whites, and that in presidential election years, the absentee ballots and provisional ballots of minority voters are more likely to be rejected than those of white voters."

And the judge said, "The Ohio General Assembly took action after the disastrous 2004 election to expand voters' access to absentee and provisional balloting, and the rollback of these improvements will disproportionately harm African-American voters. due to the General Assembly's retrenchment and the social and historical conditions affecting African-American Ohioans, (the two pieces of legislation) have a discriminatory impact on African-Americans."

Marbley said state officials have not "offered combatting voter fraud as a justification for requiring the additional information, so the integrity of the process is not at issue. Boards are thus rejecting ballots from qualified voters for mere technical mistakes."

Aside from overturning the requirements for detailed information on provisional ballots, he tossed out a prohibition on poll workers helping voters and another portion of the law that cut the period in which voters can fix faulty ballots from 10 to 7 days.

Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.

(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)