Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)
Time is of the essence.
Civic groups in Ohio are split between promoting the 2020 primary election system put in place by the General Assembly and fighting for a better one.
With the mail-only absentee ballot deadline now officially set, some advocate groups are getting to work educating voters about the multi-step process. It’s not terribly complicated, but it does require Ohioans get a move on to make the April 28 deadline.
This is exactly the problem, other groups contend: voters are forced to learn and properly navigate an absentee ballot system, all while precious time is running out.
And so, while the former groups are making posters and videos, the latter groups crafted a lawsuit.
The primary election plans, as they stand right now
The March 17 primary election was postponed at the last minute due to COVID-19 health concerns. There had been weeks of early and absentee voting, but the ordinary Election Day voting at polling places did not take place.
The state legislature has the power to set election dates and was tasked with figuring out how the primary election would proceed.
Legislators of both parties approved a system in which voting would continue, but only through the mail service. (In-person voting will be allowed under specific exceptions, such as voters with disabilities.) Here is an FAQ detailing everything Ohioans need to know about casting their ballots.
As of this article’s publication, that system is still in effect. While it is important to follow the developments and pending legal challenges, Ohio voters should at this point still abide by the April 28 deadline.
The legal challenge
Several voter rights groups are banding together to challenge this system.
The groups involved include the ACLU of Ohio, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Demos, who say they are filing a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Ohio chapter and also on behalf of several Ohio voters.
The lawsuit, filed on Monday, identifies Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose as the only defendant, though it was the legislature which put the system in place. (Incidentally, LaRose advocated against the April 28 mail-only plan, but he was named a defendant anyway due to his capacity as Ohio’s chief election officer.)
“Ohio’s inefficient absentee voting system wasn’t designed for this massive scale, especially under such an impossible timeframe,” contends Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “We call on the justice system to ensure that Ohio’s primary is constitutional and accessible.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The lawsuit makes several complaints about the new Ohio primary election process:
- That the process will disenfranchise voters. Ohioans must first apply for an absentee ballot before they can receive one. These applications must be mailed to a county board of elections office. Applications are readily available online, but some voters do not have printers at home — and other public places such as libraries are closed due to COVID-19. Also, while paid postage will be included with the blank ballots sent to voters, Ohioans will be responsible for their own postage on the application mailing.
- That there is not enough time for voters to learn the system and carry it out. “Many (Ohio voters) have never voted by mail,” the lawsuit argues. “Because they are unaccustomed to voting by mail, the multi-step vote-by-mail process established under (House Bill) 197 may be confusing for them.”
- That this system violates federal elections law. The National Voter Registration Act sets the registration deadline of 30 days before a federal election (in this case, the presidential primary). For the scheduled March 17 primary, the deadline to register in order to vote was on Feb. 18. The key here is that while voting has been extended, HB 197 is still adhering to that Feb. 18 registration deadline. The suing groups want the voter registration eligibility to be extended too.
Groups continue to educate voters in weeks ahead
While those groups are challenging the voting system with the hopes of extending the primary election, other groups are sticking with the official plan. They have begun educating voters all around Ohio about how they can cast a ballot.
The Ohio Capital Journal reached out to numerous groups to hear about their strategy for reaching voters.
The Ohio Women’s Alliance developed an infographic to offer voters a visual explanation, according to Executive Director Erin Scott. The group hopes to encourage robust voter participation among women despite “archaic voting restrictions” such as postage costs.
“Our priority is supporting local trusted messengers who are conducting rapid outreach to registered voters to make sure they have requested a vote-by-mail ballot,” Scott said in an email. “The timeliness of these requests cannot be stressed enough since all ballots must be postmarked by April 27.”
The Ohio Student Association is putting together its own video explaining how to vote via absentee ballot, noted Rachel Collyer, the group’s civic engagement manager. OSA intends to get the information out to young voters “through text and peer-to-peer organizing,” Collyer said.
Katy Shanahan, the Ohio State director with the anti-gerrymandering group All on the Line said there will be a social media push in the weeks ahead to get correct information out to voters.
Another Ohio elections lawsuit gets dismissed
There is a separate case before the Ohio Supreme Court that was dismissed on Tuesday.
That case was filed in mid-March when the election plans were still unclear. The Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging Secretary of State LaRose’s order to county boards of elections that postponed the primary election to early June.
LaRose does not have authority to set an elections date. He eventually backed off, promoting his plan as a potential option for the state legislature to consider. In the end, the legislators went their own way and LaRose was forced to rescind his directive to the boards of elections.
Because the legislature ended up passing HB 197, the case was dismissed.
“A case becomes moot when something happens that makes it impossible for the court to grant the requested relief,” the opinion reads.
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