COLUMBUS– Today the ACLU of Ohio, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dēmos filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, and several Ohio voters, challenging H.B. 197, legislation that established a ‘new’ primary election, which is set to occur on April 28. The voting rights organizations contend that the timeline and process the legislature laid out for conducting a cumbersome vote-by-mail process in one month’s time, and the fact that the bill sets the voter registration deadline 70 days before the new primary date, will prevent thousands of eligible citizens from casting a ballot and unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote.
H.B. 197 is a broad coronavirus relief bill that was signed into law by Governor DeWine on Friday, March 27. Notably, before the legislation was passed, both Secretary of State Frank LaRose and the bipartisan Ohio Association of Election Officials noted that April 28 did not give them enough time to conduct an election.
Plaintiffs ask the court to:
- order county board of elections to directly mail primary ballots to all registered voters who have not already cast a ballot in this election, return postage pre-paid;
- allow voters who do not receive a ballot in time to vote at the board of elections;
- select an election date that would allow elections officials enough time to effectively administer the election and inform voters about how the primary election will proceed; and
- set the registration date 30 days prior to the primary date, as required by federal law.
"Under the General Assembly's undemocratic election scheme, thousands, if not millions, of Ohioans will not get to vote through no fault of their own,” said Jen Miller, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. "Ohio's inefficient absentee voting system wasn't designed for this massive scale, especially under such an impossible timeframe. We call on the justice system to ensure that Ohio’s primary is constitutional and accessible."
“Many historically disenfranchised communities are not accustomed to voting by mail and may have difficulty navigating the process in this extremely short timeline. The right to vote is sacred and should be treated as such, “said Andre Washington, State President of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute.
“Ohio’s new set of rules for the primary election will disenfranchise voters on a staggering scale. There is no justification for this ill-conceived plan. Nothing can excuse the barriers that it places in front of Ohioans who want to exercise their basic right to vote. Further, the process is also a clear violation of the NVRA; we demand that the eligible voters who applied to register to vote between February 19 and March 30 be registered and able to vote in this primary,” added Freda Levenson, Legal Director for the ACLU of Ohio.
“This public health crisis should not also be a crisis for our democracy. When elections move our Constitution still protects all of us,” said Naila Awan, Senior Counsel at Dēmos. “The state must hold a 2020 primary election that makes voting accessible for all eligible Ohioans, especially Black and brown voters who too often are pushed to the sidelines of our democracy by obstacles such as arbitrary voter registration deadlines or burdensome procedures for voting absentee or at the polls.”
"The law is crystal clear and Ohio officials have run afoul of the law by failing to reopen the registration window for people across the state," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Moreover, states like Ohio must fully comply with the law to ensure that people have full access to the ballot box in the wake of the current public health crisis, by not erecting unnecessary obstacles to their voting by mail, which land particularly and heavily on low-income voters who are disproportionately people of color. We ask that the court compel Ohio’s officials to act in accordance with settled law and the Constitution, and to take simple steps that will ensure that all Ohioans can exercise their right to vote, and to do so safely.”