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Plaintiffs in voting-rights case propose complaint against Ohio Secretary of State Husted and Attorney General DeWine to rescind restrictions intended to disenfranchise African-American, Latino, and Democratic voters

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chandra: "Ohio Republicans have resurrected Jim Crow in the form of red tape."

COLUMBUS, OHIO—Today, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, and Ohio Democratic Party-successful plaintiffs in previous complaints to protect Ohioans' voting rights-filed a proposed Second Supplemental Complaint against Ohio Secretary of State Jo n Husted and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine asking U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio to declare portions of Ohio Substitute Senate Bills 205 (S.B. 205) and 216 (S.B. 216) invalid for violating the federal Voting Rights Act and the Constitution, risking the disenfranchisement of thousands of Ohio voters who may cast absentee or provisional ballots, and intentionally making it more difficult for many African-American, Latino, and Democractic-Party-member Ohioans to vote.

"Ohio Republicans are implementing a two-tiered voting system in Ohio," said Subodh Chandra, counsel for the two homeless coalitions. "These new laws create two sets of rules that make it much more likely that absentee and provisional ballots cast by legitimate Ohio voters will be invalidated. We are asking the federal court to prevent this unconstitutional disenfranchisement of thousands of Ohioans."

The U.S. Constitution guarantees those who are qualified, registered, and eligible the rights to vote and to have their votes counted. Provisions within S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 impede Ohio voters from casting absentee and provisional ballots and having those ballots counted. Ohio Governor John Kasich signed S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 into law in February 2014, and both became effective June 2, 2014.

Plaintiffs argue that restrictions within S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 are equivalent to literacy tests and other forms of illegal intimidation used to deny African-Americans the right to vote that were outlawed nationwide by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under S.B. 205 and S.B. 216, Ohioans who are qualified, registered, and eligible to vote will have their absentee and provisional ballots invalidated for immaterial reasons, including:

  • Failing to thoroughly read, completely understand, and fully and correctly fill out their absentee envelopes, even though county boards of elections verified the very same information that is missing, incomplete, or incorrect on the absentee envelopes when they reviewed and approved the absentee applications, and there is no real question as to the identity and qualifications of the voter.
  • Providing information on the absentee-voter envelope that does not exactly match the information entered into the State Voter Registration Database, even if government workers erred in entering the voter's information.
  • Failing to notice, read, or understand that they, rather than the election official, must now check a box on the Provisional-Ballot Affirmation Form next to the type of Voter-ID Document that they showed the election official when casting their ballots. (Checking this box had previously been the election official's responsibility.)

S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 also make it more difficult for absentee and provisional voters to prevent and correct issues that would invalidate their ballots by:

  • Denying absentee voters information about the nature of any signature errors on their absentee envelopes that would cause their ballots to be rejected, and slashing the time absentee voters have to remedy any errors on the absentee envelope.
  • Failing to notify provisional voters of ID errors on their Provisional-Ballot Affirmation Forms that would cause their ballots being rejected, while further limiting the time provisional voters have to correct such errors.

"These bills have made voting in Ohio like a privilege at a members-only club," said Chandra. "If you follow these senseless rules to the letter, they'll let you vote. If you can't, you're out of luck. Federal courts have spent decades restoring voting rights where certain officials have tried to make voting a special 'privilege'-and we believe the courts will vindicate voting rights again here in Ohio."

S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 also allow Ohio's 88 county boards of elections the discretion to reject absentee ballots cast by qualified, registered, and eligible voters for:

  • Writing a shortened form of the voter's name on the absentee envelope, even if election officials can identify the name (e.g., "Bill" or "Wm." for "William.");
  • Writing less than the voter's full current address, such as omitting an apartment number or zip code, even if election officials can identify the address;
  • Using partially cursive handwriting if the signature on file is fully cursive;
  • Not signing the voter's name exactly as it appears in the voter's registration, even if the signature is substantially similar.

In their proposed supplemental complaint, the plaintiffs also allege, based on the adverse impact on minority voting-and public admissions by Republican leaders-that the Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly and Ohio Governor John Kasich intended S.B. 205 and S.B. 216 to disenfranchise African-American and Latino voters, as well as Democratic Party voters, who predominately live in Ohio's urban counties and who are more likely to cast absentee and provisional ballots.

"Ohio Republicans have resurrected Jim Crow in the form of red tape," Chandra said. "And as we saw in the 1950s and '60s, red tape can be just as insidious and effective at keeping people from voting as long lines and locked doors at polling places."

Subodh Chandra and Sandhya Gupta of Cleveland from The Chandra Law Firm, LLC and Caroline Gentry of Dayton from Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP, represent the homeless coalitions. Donald McTigue of Columbus from McTigue, McGinnis & Colombo LLC represents the Ohio Democratic Party, which has joined in the proposed supplemental complaint.

Related Practice Areas
Voting Rights

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