On February 20, 2020, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost certified the summary of the ballot initiative submitted by Citizens for Secure and Fair Elections. If approved by voters in the November 2020 election, this ballot initiative would amend Ohio’s constitutional to guarantee the following to Ohio voters: (1) the right of military service members and overseas citizens to receive absentee ballots in a timely manner; (2) automatic registration when conducting business at the BMV unless they choose to opt out; (3) the opportunity to vote early, starting 28 days before the election and including the two weekends before election day; (4) the opportunity to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period and on election day, and establishing that the appropriate form of identification required for registration; (5) the right of individuals with disabilities to have full and equal access to register to vote and to vote; and (6) periodic audits of election results to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the election process.
The next step required a decision by the Ohio Ballot Board that the ballot initiative satisfies the state’s single-subject rule. At the conclusion of the Board’s March 2, 2020 meeting which included public comments and testimony from the ballot sponsor’s legal counsel, Secretary of State (and Board member) Frank LaRose made the following motion, which the five-member Board approved by a 3-2 vote along partisan lines:
I move that the board find that the Secure and Fair Elections Amendment contains four separate proposals: a constitutional right to requirements regarding casting ballots; a constitutional right regarding the manner in which one becomes a registered voter and when any registration is effective; third, a constitutional right for citizens with disabilities to register to vote and vote; and four, post-election audits.
The Board’s decision dissecting the ballot initiative into four separate initiatives means that Citizens for Secure and Fair Elections will be required to gather at least 442,958 qualified signatures for each of the four ballot measures, totaling nearly two million valid signatures. The Board’s decisions thus places an overwhelming burden on the sponsor’s resources, and substantially interferes with their right to engage in the initiative process as established by the Ohio Constitution.
Ohio Supreme Court precedent including State ex rel. Ohio Liberty Council v. Brunner, 125 Ohio St. 3d 315, 2010-Ohio-1845, establishes the Ballot Board’s duty to liberally construe the right of initiative, and to certify a proposed amendment if it bears some reasonable relationship to a single general object. The Board’s record of reviewing proposed initiatives confirms this as the governing legal standard. Accordingly, the Board’s decision to parse this proposed initiative into four separate initiatives constitutes a severe abuse of its discretion and must be invalidated.
On March 5, 2020, we filed a complaint in the Supreme Court of Ohio against the Ohio Secretary of State, the Ohio Ballot Board, and the Ohio Attorney General, seeking a Writ of Mandamus to require the Ohio Ballot Board to certify to the Ohio Attorney General that the our “Secure and Fair Elections Amendment” contains a single constitutional amendment. We also filed a Motion asking the court to expedite the briefing and consideration of our complaint. On March 6, the Court granted our motion to Expedite, and set an expedited briefing schedule, ordering the respondents to file their answers by March 10, ordering us to file our brief and evidence by March 12, ordering respondents to file their briefs and evidence by March 16, and ordering us to file our reply brief by March 19. Respondent Attorney General Yost and the Secretary of State and Ballot Board both filed their answers on March 10, 2020.
We filed our merit brief on March 12, all Respondents submitted theirs on March 16. We filed our reply on March 19. On April 14, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a writ ordering the Ballot Board to certify the Secure and Fair Elections Amendment as a single subject as soon as possible. However, the Court denied relief against Attorney General Yost and denied additional time to gather signatures.