The COVID-19 pandemic renders signature-gathering for campaigns effectively impossible, primarily because large in-person gatherings could not occur; door-to-door canvassing for signatures would be insufficient on its own; and in either event neither would be successful in light of public health advice or orders to maintain social distance.
Ohio law sets forth a number of formal requirements for petition signature-gathering that, when combined with the pandemic, make it impossible for advocates to put a proposed constitutional amendment—such as the voting rights reforms proposed by Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections—on the ballot. These requirements include a total number of signatures, a geographic distribution of the signers, requirements that the signatures be personally witnessed, and requirements that signatures be in “ink” rather than electronic
As applied in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio’s signature requirements are invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments rights to free speech and political association.
On April 27, Plaintiffs Chad Thompson, William Schmitt, and Don Keeney, three individuals who wished to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives in several municipal elections, filed a complaint against Governor DeWine, Ohio Department of Public Health Director Amy Acton, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio along with a motion for temporary restraining order. We filed a motion to intervene with our own complaint and motion for preliminary injunction on April 30. Ohioans for Raising the Wage also filed a motion to intervene on May 1. The motions to intervene were granted by the court on May 4.
Parties filed stipulated facts on May 6. On May 12, Defendants filed their opposition to the motions for TRO and PI. Replies in support were filed by Plaintiffs on May 13 and by both intervenors on May 14. On May 19 the court granted in part and denied in part the injunctive motions. The court ordered the State to accept electronically signed and submitted petitions, and extended the deadline for submitting these “signatures” from July 1 to July 31. The parties were ordered to meet and confer regarding technical and security issues as to the on-line signature collection plans and to submit their findings to the court by May 26, at noon.
On May 20, Defendants appealed the district court decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on an emergency basis, sought a stay in the district court and in the court of appeals, and also sought a stay pending the determination of whether a stay would be granted. The state also took the radical step of asking the Sixth Circuit to take the case en banc initially, instead of having a three-judge panel make a decision. All Plaintiffs filed their oppositions to the stay on May 22. Defendants filed their reply in support of the stay that same evening. On May 26 the appeals court granted the stay and the original Plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing en banc and a motion to vacate the stay pending appeal.
On May 28 we and Ohioans for Raising the Wage filed our opposition to Defendants’ petition for en banc review. On June 1, Defendants filed a reply.
On June 1, Plaintiffs also filed an emergency application to vacate the stay with the United States Supreme Court.
On June 16, 2020, the Sixth Circuit denied all en banc requests and motions to reconsider and to vacate the stay pending appeal. On July 8, Plaintiffs-Appellees filed an Emergency Motion to Partially Lift the Stay, which the Sixth Circuit (again) denied on July 13. Appellants filed their merit brief on July 17. A collection of six Ohio business organizations including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Manufactures’ Association filed an amicus brief on July 24, urging the court to reverse the district court’s ruling and to reject all arguments supporting electronic collection and submission of petition signatures and extending the deadline for submission of the signatures to the state.
On August 20, we moved to be dismissed from the appeal because the deadline for submitting signatures for statewide ballot measures has passed, making our position moot.