September 25, 2008

CLEVELAND- The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit late yesterday challenging Madison County’s decision to deny absentee ballots to newly registered voters in violation of directives sent by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The lawsuit was filed in the in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio on behalf of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), 1Matters, Project Vote and two individual voters.

“If newly-registered voters are prevented from casting absentee ballots in person or by mail, thousands of Ohio voters will be disenfranchised. Many people, including students who only recently became old enough to vote, need to have access to absentee ballots because they may attend school in a different county or state, but still reside at their home address,” said ACLU of Ohio Staff Counsel Carrie Davis.

The situation began as a result of Secretary Brunner’s August 13, 2008 directive requesting that local Boards of Elections prepare for people who wish to register and vote during a five day overlap in voter registration deadlines and the beginning of absentee balloting. Currently, a voter must be registered to vote 30 days before the date of the election, and absentee balloting begins 35 days before the election. The Board of Elections in Madison County has stated they will only provide absentee ballots to voters who have been registered more than 30 days before the date they requested an absentee ballot, rather than 30 days before Election Day. The issue is also currently before the Ohio Supreme Court in the case Ohio v. Brunner, and the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Secretary Brunner’s position earlier this week.

“All voters should have equal access to the ballot box. According to the decisions by the Madison County Board of Elections, voters who registered close to the 30 day deadline would be unable to apply for a timely absentee ballot,” said Meredith Bell-Platts, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Treating one group of voters differently than another is clearly unconstitutional and violates numerous federal statutes.”

The complaint also asks that Secretary Brunner take all steps necessary to ensure that voters will be able to request, receive and submit an absentee ballot upon their registration.

NEOCH, 1Matters, and Project Vote are non-profit, nonpartisan organizations. NEOCH and 1Matters provide services to homeless Ohioans and are planning to help thousands register and cast absentee ballots in this election. Project Vote provides technical assistance and direct service to the civic participation community, encouraging voter education and engagement. The two individual voters are Sherie Penix and Daniel George. Penix is a voter in Madison County who wishes to register and cast an absentee ballot. George is a volunteer in Cleveland who drives homeless and elderly voters to the county Board of Elections to register and cast an absentee ballot.

"Political maneuvering should not block Ohioans’ access to the ballot box. These registrations and ballots will be vetted like any other person’s would be. Hopefully, the court will act to protect these voters’ rights and halt any further partisan challenges," Davis concluded.