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Voting Rights Groups Challenge Ohio's Postponed Primary System

A sign is taped to a door leading into a polling location at the Messiah Lutheran Church, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press

A new lawsuit filed by four voting rights groups seeks to make it easier to cast a ballot during Ohio's delayed primary election.

The ACLU of Ohio, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Demos and the League of Women Voters of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Their complaint argues the state’s vote-by-mail system is too cumbersome and slow for the April 28 deadline chosen by state lawmakers. It also contends that by refusing to reopen voter registration, the procedures violate federal law that sets the deadline for registration as no earlier than 30 days before an election.

"Ohio's vote by mail system is not set up to be implemented in a short time frame that serves millions of Ohioans at once," says Jen Miller of the League of Women Voters.

The organizations don’t suggest a particular date for the primary, but urges the judge to reopen registration and compel the state to automatically send ballots to eligible voters. It also seeks to allow voters who don't receive a ballot in time to vote at their county board of elections.

LaRose's office issued a statement in response to the lawsuit.

"While Secretary LaRose is the named defendant in today’s action, it is ultimately H.B. 197 - which passed the Ohio General Assembly with unanimous, bipartisan votes in both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate - that is being challenged," the statement reads. "His sworn duty as Secretary of State is to carry out the law as the legislature crafts it on behalf of Ohio voters and to give them confidence in Ohio’s elections."

Ohio's primary election, which was originally set for March 17, was delayed hours before polls were set to open due to concerns about the coronavirus. After a judge shot down a lawsuit from concerned voters, Gov. Mike DeWine had a public health order issued to close the polls. DeWine and LaRose originally sought to extend absentee voting until June 2.

In a coronavirus response bill unanimously passed by Ohio's General Assembly, the state switched to an absentee-only election and extended the time to vote through April 28.

After the House vote, Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) says they agreed to that date so Democrats would have enough time to seat presidential delegates for their convention.

"The folks that want to vote, I think they're probably anxious to vote. They were ready to go on Election Day and cast their ballots," Householder said. "And so, when it comes in, I think those people that chose to vote are waiting anxiously and they'll probably cast those ballots and they'll do it in a timely fashion."

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.
Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.