Politics

Ohio May Disenfranchise Voters For Technical Errors

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Smith

Thanks to a series of laws that went into effect this summer, election officials in Ohio can throw out legitimate absentee and provisional ballots that have small errors — such as leaving out a middle name — and in many cases they don’t have to give the voter a chance to fix the problem. Two Ohio homeless groups and the state’s Democratic Party are now seeking to challenge these rules in court, arguing they violate the Voting Rights Act and the right to due process under the Constitution.

“This is no different from Jim Crow, it’s just a new form of it,” Attorney Subodh Chandra, who is representing the groups, told ThinkProgress. “The laws shift the burden onto individual voters to not only get every single detail correct, but to match the state’s data, even if it is incorrect.”

The laws, which were signed by the Republican Governor John Kasich in February and implemented by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted in June, expand the number of errors, mismatches or omissions that could disqualify a ballot, and cut the length of time a voter has to learn of the problems and remedy them. Under the legislation, election officials are not permitted to notify voters of issues by telephone or email, even if they have contact information, so notifications could be held up in the mail as Election Day approaches.

And for those who vote provisionally, the state is not required to notify them at all if their vote will not be counted. Provisional voters have the right to modify their ballots if there are errors, but that right cannot be exercised if they are never notified of issues. Ohio tends to net an unusually high number of provisional ballots, meaning the potential damage could be widespread.

Chandra gave an example of how minor such a discrepancy can be. “Suppose your name is William Thomas Smith. And when you fill out your application you write Wm. T. Smith or Bill Smith or even William Smith,” he said. “Your address is correct, your Social Security number is correct, but your vote can be thrown out based on a technical defect that is immaterial to verifying your identity.”

The discretion given to local officials under the law allows them to reject ballots even if the cursive letters in a signature slightly vary from the voter’s file.

The plaintiffs in the case, including the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, say the state’s low-income and homeless voters of color, who tend to vote for Democrats, are disproportionately impacted by these laws. Not only are they more likely to cast a provisional or absentee ballot because they lack a steady home address and a voter ID, they are more likely to make an unintentional error on that ballot.

“Its really the worst kind of voter restriction because you’re just erecting these barriers and hoping that voters will be discounted because of a technicality,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The groups’ legal complaint alleges the laws have a discriminatory intent as well as a discriminatory impact. Chandra accused the Republican officials who passed and implemented the regulations of “playing a demographics game that benefits them electorally.”

The impact of the law became more destructive still, they say, when the Supreme Court green-lighted Ohio’s cuts to early voting. Now, voters who discover a problem with their ballot have a much narrower window to fix it.

“These types of laws are simply antithetical to what we need in our election system,” Brickner said. “The problem we have in our voting system now is that not enough people are voting, and yet these laws seek to make it more complicated to vote, and really without any benefit to either the voter or the election system.”

The case is now before District Judge Algenon Marbley, who will decide whether the complaint can go forward. Since it’s too late to block the law for Tuesday’s election, the plaintiffs and other voting rights group will be monitoring whether legitimate voters are disenfranchised, and hope to present that evidence in court.