Appeals Court: Only 1 Ohio ballot rule a burden on voters

Posted at 8:19 AM, Sep 14, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A federal appeals court blocked rules requiring precise completion of thousands of absentee ballots in swing state Ohio, but upheld other challenged election-law changes in a Tuesday ruling as legal and not unduly burdensome.

The three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected all but one element of a lower court's decision that found the laws violate the Voting Rights Act and place an undue burden on voters. U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley had said the laws could harm black voters in particular. Judge Damon Keith dissented in part.

The ruling affirmed Marbley's rejection of absentee-ballot requirements for birthdate and address entries as presenting an undue burden on voters, saying Ohio could provide no justification for its precise standard. At the same time, the court reversed Marbley on other changes, saying they were not burdensome and didn't disparately affect minorities.

At issue in the case were several changes on absentee and provisional ballot requirements Ohio's Republican-led legislature passed in 2014.

The panel's ruling blocks Ohio from requiring the full and accurate completion of absentee-ballot forms before otherwise qualified voters' ballots can be counted. It lets stand provisions that reduced the time voters could cure errors and prohibited poll worker assistance.

Advocates for the homeless and the Ohio Democratic Party sued Ohio's Republican elections chief over the laws and procedures, saying they created hurdles for voters, particularly minorities. They pointed to instances of invalid ballots being counted and valid ballots being tossed as a result of the laws.

Attorneys for the state, which voted for Democrat Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections and for Republican George W. Bush in the two elections before those, said the challenged laws were reasonable and nondiscriminatory and imposed a minimal burden on voters.

The 6th Circuit noted the state's attorneys didn't deliver on their promised explanation for why the election law changes were necessary, including fraud.

"Not only did that never materialize, but, as is apparent from the record, there is no indication of a legitimate fraud concern at all," they wrote. But the panel said much of the law is minimally disruptive to voters and doesn't disenfranchise voters.

Among other changes, the laws require voters to provide certain identifying information when casting absentee or provisional ballots. Voters must include their names, signatures, valid forms of ID, addresses and birthdates. Otherwise, the ballots could be rejected due to errors or omissions.

Provisional ballots are those cast when a voter's identity or registration is in question. The voter's eligibility is verified later.

Subodh Chandra, an attorney for the plaintiffs, had a mixed reaction to the ruling. He said his clients are weighing their legal options, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The decision represents a significant victory for voting rights, in that the court recognized the irrationality of Ohio disenfranchising voters whose identify it has confirmed, based on minor errors and omissions," he said. "But the decision is also a disappointment insofar as it does not recognize the detailed fact-finding of discrimination that the district court had accomplished."

Secretary of State Jon Husted commended the court for a "reasonable" decision.

"The most important issue in this case was to ensure that voters who cast an absentee or provisional ballot have to provide identifying information to make certain they are legally registered to vote," he said.

Husted has called the lawsuit politically motivated and says it's part of a trend of unelected federal judges writing Ohio's elections laws.

The lawsuit dates to a 2006 challenge of a law that specified when provisional ballots could be counted toward vote totals. A 2010 court decree stemming from that lawsuit has governed Ohio's provisional ballots and voter identification requirements. The judge ruled last year the case could be updated to include the challenge to the 2014.