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Here's Where The Lawsuits Over Ohio's Election Currently Stand

A bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Steubenville, Ohio.
Gene Puskar
Associated Press

With just two weeks before voters start casting ballots in Ohio, there are four different lawsuits pending over the state's voting process. They range from the way absentee ballot requests can be made to how mail-in ballots can be returned to boards of elections.

Ballot Boxes

There is currently one ballot drop box in all of Ohio’s 88 counties, located at the board of elections. The drop boxes were put at those locations prior to this past primary.

Instead of putting an absentee ballot in the mail, voters can choose instead to go to their county board and deposit it in the secure drop box.

Mail-in ballot interest in this year’s election is high. Already the number of mail in ballots requested – 1.4 million at this point – has surpassed the number of mail-in ballot received in all of 2016. And early voting doesn't even start until October 6.

Democrats and voter rights groups say it’s important to have more drop boxes in larger counties where there are more voters, and where the sole drop box at the board of elections is difficult to reach for voters who lack access to transportation.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has sent mixed signals about drop boxes. First, he indicated he’d like to install more if he had the ability to do so without legislative approval. He asked for an opinion from Attorney General Dave Yost. But just before Yost was set to give his opinion, LaRose withdrew his request.

Instead, LaRose told boards of elections they couldn’t install additional drop boxes for the November election. That decision caused controversy for many reasons. Those who were pushing for more drop boxes point out recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service could slow mail delivery, which could cause ballots to not be counted if they arrived late. And they noted drop boxes provide another COVID-safe option for voters during the pandemic.

Ultimately, two different lawsuits were filed over LaRose's directive.

Jim O'Bryan drops off his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.
Credit Tony Dejak / Associated Press
Associated Press
Jim O'Bryan drops off his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.

Ohio Democratic Party v. Frank LaRose

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said he sued LaRose to answer the question about whether he has the legal authority to allow more drop boxes to be installed without legislative approval. Pepper says the hope was that LaRose, who had said publicly that he liked the idea of having drop boxes, would use the ruling as alegal basis to allow more drop boxes.

However, that’s not what happened. Upon the court’s rulingthat LaRose could and should allow more drop boxes, LaRose’s office put out a statementsaying the court didn’t issue an injunction demanding it, and that he would appeal at the first opportunity.

The following day, the Franklin County judge issued the injunction, demanding LaRose allow more drop boxes, and LaRose immediately appealed. The court put a stay on the order during the appeal. 

In filings Monday, the Ohio Republican Party told an appelette court that the Franklin County judge overstepped his authority in blocking LaRose's directive, saying that it "relied on anecdotal evidence and 'sound public policy'" when the case "presents a pure question of law."

There's an additional controversy associated with this case. After the Franklin County judge's initial ruling on drop boxes on September 16, the Ohio GOP tweeted an allegation that the court had colluded with Pepper in the course of that ruling.

That unsubstantiated allegation prompted rebuke from many, including Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican. Evan Machan, communications director for the party, said "you can attribute that statement to me" when asked if the tweet was approved by Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken.

Pepper has asked the court to take action against the Ohio GOP. The tweet in question has since been removed.

A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio et. al v.Frank LaRose

This second lawsuit, which also brings together the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio chapter of the NAACP, argues that LaRose must add drop boxes so Ohio voters, especially those who are low-income or minorities, have a safe way to return their absentee ballots.

The groups say drop boxes should be based on population, noting that one drop box in a large county is not the same as one drop box in a smaller county. The federal court is set to consider this argument on September 23, 2020.

An absentee ballot application from the state of Ohio.
Credit Darrin McDonald / WOSU
An absentee ballot application from the state of Ohio.

Requesting Absentee Ballots

Anyone who wants to vote by absentee mail-in ballots in Ohio must first request one. They can do that by returning absentee ballot request cards that have been sent out by the Ohio Secretary of State's Office, or from other political or good government groups.

But unless you are an Ohio voter living overseas, you cannot make that request electronically. Although you can go online to download the request form, you must mail it to your local board of elections. Voter rights groups and the Ohio Democratic Party would like to see this policy changed so that any voter can simply go online and request their ballot be sent to them.

Again, LaRose has said he supports this change but cannot authorize it without legislative approval. State Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) has introduced a bill to make this change, but it hasn’t made any progress and is highly unlikely to become law soon, since lawmakers are not in full session before the November 3 election.

The Ohio Democratic Party contends LaRose doesn't need legislative approval to make this change either, and sued in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. On September 11, that court ruled online ballot requests could be made online, in email or texts.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose immediately appealed the ruling to the 10th District Court of Appeals, saying it would make it easy for hackers to compromise the system. The ruling was stayed, and an appeal is pending right now.

Signature Matching

A lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Ohio seeks to throw out the state's signature-matching requirement on ballot applications and forms.

Currently, voters request absentee ballots with a written application that contains their signature. The boards of elections then match those signatures against the ones on file from the voter’s original registration. This signature matching also takes place when mail-in ballots are received. If those signatures don’t match, the ballot or application can be denied.

But the ACLU of Ohio says thousands of voters were disenfranchised by this law in the 2018 election. So, it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, asking a U.S. District Court to declare signature-matching unconstitutional.

The groups say the penmanship of voters often erodes over time or can be different depending on the circumstances when signing. If the court won't scrap the signature-matching requirement for this election, the plaintiffs want the court to demand time to "remedy the situation" by requiring boards of elections to immediately email or call voters whose ballot applications or ballots are questioned so they can fix the problem.

LaRose says county boards will work with voters who are affected by questions over signature matching and will provide a “cure period.”

The lawsuit over this is pending.

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.