When a registered Ohio voter requests an absentee ballot, Ohio law requires that the ballot application be signed, but does not require that the applicant’s signature match the signature on file with the applicable county board of elections. Nevertheless, state and county election officials require the signature on the application to match the voter’s on-file signature. Ohio law does require signature matching for completed absentee ballots. Because an individual’s handwriting changes for a variety of reasons (aging, illness, medications, stress, the type of pen used), and because Ohio does not provide appropriate technical expertise and training for election board employees to accurately compare signatures, thousands of ballot applications and completed ballots are unconstitutionally rejected each year. Public records research conducted by the Associated Press in 2019 documented that more than 6500 ballot applications were rejected in 21 counties due to mismatched or missing signatures. Many other counties had incomplete information as to why ballot applications were rejected. Ongoing public record searches by the Ohio ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law confirm the AP’s data and analysis. The problems with ballot applications is compounded because Ohio law (specifically Ohio Revised Code §3509.03) is unclear as to how and when the Board of elections should notify an applicant that their signature is missing or unclear, or what steps the voter must take to cure the defect. As a result, many Ohio voters have been and will continue to be denied the right to vote due to the signature matching requirements. The numbers of voters disenfranchised due to this requirement will increase significantly in the Nov. 3 general election because many more people than usual will opt to vote by mail.
Ohio’s scheme of matching voters’ signatures on absentee ballot applications and on return envelopes containing absentee ballots is unconstitutional because it denies voters sufficient opportunity to learn about and correct alleged mismatches. Because signature matching is frequently inaccurate, eligible voters are disenfranchised when their ballots are rejected. Voters are constitutionally entitled to due process and equal protection when their absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots are rejected for supposedly mismatched signatures.
On July 31, 2020, we filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Plaintiffs are the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio A. Phillip Randolph Institute, and two individuals who were not able to vote in the 2020 primary election due to issues with their absentee ballot signatures s. Defendants filed their answer several weeks before it was due, on August 14. The day before Defendants filed their answer, we filed a motion to exceed the page limit for our Motion for a Preliminary Injunction Judge Watson granted the extension on August 19, and we filed our Preliminary Injunction Motion on August 24. On August 17, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., the Ohio Republican Party, the Republican National Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee filed a motion to intervene as defendants. They claim that our requested relief would strategically disadvantage Republican candidates in Ohio. We opposed the Republican Motion to Intervene on August 31, they filed a Reply in Support of their Motion to Intervene on September 3. The Court approved permissive intervention and granted the motion on September 4. Intervenors filed an Answer to our Amended Complaint that same day and Defendant filed his Answer to the Amended Complaint on September 8. On September 12, Defendant and Intervenors each filed an Opposition to our PI Motion. Defendant also filed a Motion to Exclude our Experts, Drs. McCool, Street, and Mohammed. On September 15 we opposed the Motion to Exclude and filed our Reply in Support of PI Motion. Judge Watson denied the PI Motion on September 27.
The first pretrial conference took place on February 18, 2021. The court-issued schedule required exchange of Expert reports by May 14, the close of discovery on June 30, and the filing of dispositive motions by July 30, 2021.
Since the February 18 pretrial, the Secretary of State has voluntarily issued directives requiring expanded notice and cure processes for signature matches on ballot applications and absentee ballot envelopes for the May 4, 2021 Primary/Special Election, and for ballot applications for the August 3, 2021 Special Election. The Secretary’s directives indicate that another directive will be forthcoming to govern notice and cure of information on absentee ballot envelopes in the August 3 election. Because the Secretary’s directives provide much of the relief we were seeking from the court in this ligation, we filed a Stipulation of Dismissal of this case on May 20, 2021. We will continue closely monitoring Ohio’s signature matching regulations governing absentee ballots and pursue additional litigation if appropriate.