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Federal Appeals Court Blocks Ohio Groups From Collecting Electronic Petition Signatures

Amy Sutherly gathers signatures to put a referendum of HB6 on the 2020 November ballot. She has a brace around her wrist saying she sustained the injury after a counter petitioner hit her.
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Amy Sutherly gathers signatures to put a referendum of HB6 on the 2020 November ballot.

A federal appeals court has dealt a blow to Ohio groups trying to put constitutional amendment proposals on the November ballot.

Pending further appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday stayed a lower court ruling that gave ballot issue backers more time to collect signatures, and allowed for the collection of electronic signatures, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and Ohio’s responsive restrictions to halt the spread of that disease have made it difficult for all Ohioans to carry on with their lives," the court's decision reads. "But for the most part we are letting our elected officials, with input from public health experts, decide when and how to apply those restrictions. The election context is no different."

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled that Ohio's "strict enforcement of the signature requirements" infringed on ballot groups' First Amendment rights. The Sixth Circuit rejected that, finding instead that "serious and irreparable harm will thus result if Ohio cannot conduct its election in accordance with its lawfully enacted ballot-access regulations."

The decision means, once again, groups like Ohioans For Secure And Fair Elections will have to collect more than 400,000 valid petition signatures, in person, by July 1. Campaign manager Toni Webb says that's virtually impossible.

“The campaign and its lawyers are reading the opinion more thoroughly now and figuring out our next step," Webb says.

Webb says other states have made it easier for groups like hers to collect petition signatures in this pandemic.

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.

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.