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Ohio Ballot Issue Organizers Can Collect Signatures Electronically During Pandemic

Rebecca Roth reviews applications for election ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press
Rebecca Roth reviews applications for election ballots at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.

A federal court ruled Tuesday that an Ohio group will have more time to collect petition signatures to put a voter rights amendment on the November ballot. The groups will also be permitted to collect those signatures electronically due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To qualify for the fall ballot, Ohio required amendment backers to obtain nearly 443,000 valid signatures by July 1. In normal years, during the spring and summer, groups able to gather at festivals and community events, bringing around clipboards to collect petition signatures from voters.

But because of the coronavirus, many of those festivals have been cancelled, while social distancing requirements have made it tough for those groups to gather signatures.

"This Court finds that in these unique historical circumstances of a global pandemic and the impact of Ohio’s Stay-at-Home Orders, the State’s strict enforcement of the signature requirements for local initiatives and constitutional amendments severely burden Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights as applied here," the decision reads.

Toni Webb, campaign manager for Ohioans For Secure and Fair Elections, says she’s grateful the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognized the group's need to collect signatures online. The federal court also extended the deadline for collecting those signatures by one month, to July 31.

However, the court denied the group's request to lower the number of signatures required to qualify.

In addition to the voting rights amendment, the ruling also affects a ballot effort to raise Ohio's minimum wage from $8.70 to $13 by 2025, and proposed marijuana decriminalization initiatives.

Webb says it’s still going to be tough to meet the new deadline.

“Electronic signatures are no easy feat, and we still have to collect almost 443,000 valid signatures via an unproven method of signature collections," Webb said.

The "Secure And Fair Elections Amendment" would require 28 days of early voting, institute automatic voter registration through the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and allow same-day registration and voting.

Last month, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed a decision by the state Ballot Board to split the amendment in four parts. That court, however, rejected a request for more time to gather signatures.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.