Federal Appeals Court To Ohio: Stop Disenfranchising Voters Because Of Poll Worker Mistakes

Ohio law disenfranchises voters who case a provisional ballot in the wrong precinct, even if they are directed to the wrong precinct by a mistaken poll worker. Worse, because many of Ohio’s polling places cover more than one precinct, a voter can be disenfranchised merely because a poll worker erroneously hands them the wrong ballot. According to a opinion released today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, this practice violates the Constitution:

Ohio tossed out more than 14,000 wrong precinct ballots in 2008 and 11,000 more in 2010, with such rejections occurring across the state. And in the mid-cycle election of 2011, Ohio disqualified more than 1,800 right-place/wrong-precinct ballots . . . .

The application of Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3505.183(B)(4)(a)(ii) and (B)(4)(b)(ii) to right-place/wrong-precinct ballots caused by poll-worker error effectively requires voters to have a greater knowledge of their precinct, precinct ballot, and polling place than poll workers. Absent such omniscience, the State will permanently reject their ballots without an opportunity to cure the situation. The mere fact that these voters cast provisional ballots does not justify this additional burden; as the district court explained, Ohio law now requires thirteen different categories of voters to cast provisional ballots, ranging from individuals who do not have an acceptable form of identification to those who requested an absentee ballot or whose signature was deemed by the precinct official not to match the name on the registration forms . . . . The State would disqualify thousands of rightplace/wrong-precinct provisional ballots, where the voter’s only mistake was relying on the poll-worker’s precinct guidance. That path unjustifiably burdens these voters’ fundamental right to vote.

As Professor Rick Hasen notes, the case was heard before a severely conservative three judge panel, so the decision will hopefully have staying power if Ohio decides to appeal it to the conservative Roberts Court.