Fight against Republican-hatched ballot rules heating up

Advocates challenging state election rules that absentee and provisional ballots be filled out free of errors gathered to make their points on the courthouse steps Thursday.

click to enlarge State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati (L), and Cleveland civil rights lawyer Subodh Chandra (R)
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati (L), and Cleveland civil rights lawyer Subodh Chandra (R)

Hours before their case would be argued Thursday before the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, advocates challenging state election rules that absentee and provisional ballots be filled out free of errors made their points in a less formal setting — on the courthouse steps.

An Ohio law passed in 2014 led many county election boards to throw out absentee and provisional ballots containing flaws such as incorrect dates of birth and addresses or names written in cursive. In June, U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley of Columbus labeled such errors as “trivial” and blocked the state from enforcing those rules. That’s what sent Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to the federal appellate court in Cincinnati. The court’s ruling will come later.

Under a blistering sun on E. Fifth Street, State Rep. Alicia Reece, Cleveland civil rights lawyer Subodh Chandra and a group of six black ministers grew hot under the collar about what they consider a calculated Republican effort to strip voters — mainly urban Democrats — of their voting rights.

Chandra, the attorney for the lead plaintiff in the case, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, held up placards showing how the ballot accuracy rules were enforced in urban counties, but not in “mostly white” rural counties. “That is racist,” he said. “That is disparate impact. That is discrimination under the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.”

Chandra’s visual aids showed that Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lucas and Stark counties require ZIP codes on absentee and provisional ballots, while eight smaller counties, including Adams, do not. They showed that Cuyahoga and Lorain counties don’t accept cursive name entries, while others, including Warren, do. Franklin County, according to the charts, accepts signatures for absentee ballots but not for provisionals.

“They have to be flawless,” Chandra said of the ballots. “It has to be absolutely perfect, like a triple lutz that wins the gold medal at the Olympics.” Chandra was to have argued the plaintiff’s case Thursday.

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from federal courts in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, has become a focal point for legal challenges to Ohio election laws passed in recent years. Last week, the court heard arguments for and against the state’s push to purge voters deemed “inactive” by virtue of not voting or not confirming their addresses. Next up will be the hearing of Husted’s appeal of Judge Michael Watson’s ruling in May restoring “Golden Week,” when early voters can register and vote at the same time.

Reece, a Cincinnati Democrat and president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, said unfettered access to the ballot isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue but an “American issue.”

“We want to make sure that every single voter has the right and the opportunity to case their vote and that their vote is counted,” she said. “The facts are real: Certain people are being targeted simply because they came out and voted.”

Husted’s office said it, too, is trying to ensure uniform access to the polls. “Secretary Husted has worked hard over the past several years to make sure every board of elections operates under the same rules and standards,” said his press secretary, Joshua Eck, in an e-mail. “Every Ohio voter should be treated the same, regardless of their ZIP code.”

The plaintiffs in the court case contend that more than 4,100 absentee and provisional ballots were invalidated in 2014 and 2015 combined. Incorrect entries weren’t the only cause for rejection. The advocacy group that put together Thursday’s press conference, Why Courts Matter Ohio, said the absentee ballots of a Dublin, Ohio, husband and wife were tossed because they were mailed in each other’s return envelopes.

Victor Couzens, a bishop with Inspirational Baptist Church in Forest Park, said Election Day will be marked by “chaos and confusion” if the state is allowed to disqualify ballots because of entry errors — and if people are told that they can’t vote.

“People are going to show up at the polls, and some of them are going to find out that they’re not registered to vote,” said Couzens, one of the speakers Thursday. “This is going to create a backlog of people trying to vote. It’s going to create hostility and will put poll workers in an unnecessary situation."

Couzens said his church recently set up laptops to let its members access the Secretary of State website to see if they were registered to vote. Five, he said, were surprised to find out that they weren’t.

Couzens said he was optimistic that the appellate court would uphold Judge Marbley’s June 7 ruling.

“Who would have imagined, in the year 2016, that we would still have a conversation … about whose vote would be counted,” he said.

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