by Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Voting rights groups and Democrats filed two, separate lawsuits in Ohio Friday that the parties said were aimed at making voting easier in the battleground state this November amid the coronavirus pandemic. The legal action aims to expand online and email ballot applications and
Republicans, including Secretary of State Frank LaRose, criticized the efforts. A GOP spokesman accusing the groups of “indifference to election security.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law brought one suit on behalf of voting rights groups and an individual, arguing that Ohio has an unconstitutional signature-matching requirement for ballots applications and ballots.
The parties, including the Ohio chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the League of Women Voters, contend the process carried out by election workers untrained in handwriting analysis disenfranchises thousands of eligible voters.
“Especially during a global pandemic, Ohio voters must be able to efficiently secure absentee ballots and have assurance that their votes will count,” Jen Miller, the Ohio League’s executive director, said in a statement.
The litigation cites a December review by The Associated Press that found thousands of ballot applications across the state were held up or denied ahead of the 2018 general election because of missing or mismatched signatures.
The Ohio Democratic Party’s lawsuit, also filed Friday, seeks to compel the secretary of state to allow voters to apply for absentee ballots by electronic means, including by fax or email.
LaRose has said he advocates an online application process, as is in place in 22 states and the District of Columbia — but that he needs fellow Republicans in the Legislature to give him the authority. Democrats argue in their lawsuit that existing Ohio law already gives LaRose the power to make the switch.
State Democratic Chairman David Pepper said in a conference call with reporters Friday that he hopes LaRose will support, rather than fight, the suit — which is technically filed against him as elections chief.
“This way we can do it immediately, as opposed to waiting for this very dysfunctional and, I’d say, broken Legislature to somehow find religion in the coming months that they’ve never found,” he said. The speaker of the Ohio House was arrested in a federal bribery probe last week. Representatives removed and replaced him Thursday.
LaRose has long said that online ballot applications would eliminate hurdles for voters, which include the signature-matching requirements targeted in the voting-rights groups’ lawsuit.
But on Friday he spoke out against Democrats’ legal action.
“Now more than ever, voters need stability and trust in their elections,” LaRose said in a statement. “Implementing an insecure system where e-mailed attachments could just as easily be a virus as it could be a picture of a ballot request form puts our election in danger.”
He noted that Ohio will be mailing ballot request forms to every Ohio voters in a few weeks. Those forms must be returned in person or by mail in order for those wishing to vote by mail to get their ballot mailed to their homes. To complete the process, the ballot must also be mailed back or returned in person.
Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, said addressing the signature-match system she calls “incredibly subjective and fraught with error” is crucial this year, as records numbers of Ohioans prepare to vote by mail because of the pandemic.
Evan Machan, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said that, in combination, the two suits’ goals of eliminating signature-matching and moving ballot requests online would “make it possible for anyone to request a ballot for another voter without their knowledge or consent and (leave) no way to check for fraud.”
“Free and fair elections should be a priority for both groups,” he said in a statement. “Though their indifference to election security hardly comes as a surprise, it should infuriate Ohio voters.”
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Julie Carr Smyth is a reporter at The Associated Press.