Judge rejects voter rights groups’ lawsuit to postpone Ohio primary further

Photo by Getty Images.

A federal judge has ruled that Ohio’s primary election will go on as planned, likely quashing the final effort to postpone voting even further due to the ongoing pandemic.

Ohio voters have until later this month to mail in their absentee ballots. They must first apply to their county board of elections office in order to receive their ballot before mailing in the completed vote. The Capital Journal published a full explainer about the process, available here.

The primary election was originally scheduled for March 17, but voting was postponed when the state ordered the closure of all voting locations due to public health concerns. The state legislature determined a solution with the passage of House Bill 197, which called for an extension of voting through mail-in ballots through April 28. There will be no in-person voting except in certain cases, such as a voter having a disability. 

A number of voter rights groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of Ohio challenging this law. While it was the legislature that enacted it, the lawsuit identified Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose as the single defendant in his capacity as the state’s chief elections officer.

They argued the system in place is too complicated; will disenfranchise voters; may constitute being a poll tax in requiring Ohioans acquire a stamp; and violates federal elections law not allowing new voter registrations up to 30 days before the April 28 deadline.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose

Judge Michael H. Watson conceded HB 197 does impose a “modest” burden on voters, but not a “severe” enough one for him to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. He ruled an injunction delaying the vote further would lead to even more confusion than just going through with the legislature’s plan. 

The judge recognized some difficulties with the multi-step absentee ballot process, but said they were necessary in order to safeguard the integrity of the election. The “compressed timeframe” is also justified, Watson wrote, because the political parties require it in order to adhere to their national convention schedule. 

In the case of the Democratic Party, the Ohio Democrats have a deadline of June 20, 2020 to certify the state party’s delegation to the national convention. The Ohio Democrats themselves had advocated for the April 28 plan. 

As for the voter registration law — the lawsuit had pointed to the The National Voter Registration Act, which sets a registration deadline of 30 days before a federal election (in this case, the presidential primary). The state is adhering to the deadline prior to the original March 17 voting date despite allowing votes to be cast by mail through late April.

The state has defended this decision by asserting April 28 is not a new election date, but rather an extension of voting eligibility beyond March 17. In essence: this is not an election “re-do,” but an “election modification.”

Watson agreed. 

“The State of Ohio and Secretary LaRose correctly distinguish between an election modification, which we have here, and an election cancellation,” he wrote.

The plaintiffs had included the ACLU of Ohio, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Ohio chapter and several Ohio voters. 

“The Constitution does not require the best plan, just a lawful one,” Watson concluded. “As is apparent from the briefing in this lawsuit, every group has a different idea of what the best plan would be. But the Court will not declare the Ohio Legislature’s unanimous bill to be unconstitutional simply because other options may have been better.”  

You can learn more about the Ohio primary election process at the Secretary of State’s website

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.