Supreme Court ensures thousands of Ohio ballots will be thrown out for small errors

Civil rights lawyers compare the policy to Jim Crow-era literacy tests.

Voters outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections during early voting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Voters outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections during early voting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The last hope for a lawsuit brought by a coalition of Ohio voters experiencing homelessness died at the U.S. Supreme Court this week, leaving the state’s policy of throwing away provisional ballots with small errors in place for the 2016 election.

Now, voters who forget to include their middle name or zip code, make a typo on their birth date, or sign their name in cursive in the “print name” box could have their ballot tossed.

Subodh Chandra, a Cleveland attorney who brought the suit on behalf of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, told ThinkProgress he fears “hundreds if not thousands of voters will be disenfranchised over trivial errors.”

On Monday night, the high court rejected Chandra’s request for an emergency stay of the law without providing an explanation. Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted celebrated the decision, saying in a statement: “It is time for the chaos and waste of taxpayer money to come to an end.”

“Hundreds if not thousands of voters will be disenfranchised over trivial errors.”

Under Ohio law, if a voter’s name, birthday, or address on their provisional ballot does not exactly match the state’s records — even if it’s the state records that have a typo or error — the ballot can be thrown out. For example, if the state has “William” on file but the voter writes “Bill” on his envelope, or if the voter signs his name in cursive in the “print name” section, the vote can be invalidated. The law also limits the ability for voters to find out and correct such a mismatch, shortening the window for doing so from 10 to seven days.


More than 4,000 ballots in Cuyahoga County alone were thrown out in 2014 for minor errors. The county, whose population is more than 30 percent African-American, enforces the policy much more strictly than the state’s more rural, white, Republican counties. In Democratic-leaning Franklin County, hundreds of ballots were thrown out in 2014 for reasons including: voters wrote their names in cursive, voters mixed up a couple digits in their Social Security number, and voters did not provide a birthdate.

Yet officials from Meigs County, whose population is more than 97 percent white, testified that they counted ballots from residents that had incorrect birth dates, and even those that had no name or address at all. Wyandot County, which is nearly 98 percent white, officials approved ballots without a valid street address, city or zip code, a wrong or missing birthdate, or a misspelled name.

“This is unequal application of the law based on race,” Chandra said. “Smaller, rural counties in Ohio are counting votes they’re not supposed to under these laws, while larger, urban counties are disenfranchising voters for the same errors.”

Not only is Ohio’s homeless population concentrated in the counties that strictly enforce the law, but they are also likelier to have to cast a provisional ballot because they don’t have a fixed address. Because this population has lower literacy rates than non-homeless voters, they are also likelier to make the kind of small error that could cause that ballot to be thrown in the trash. Lawyers say the policy, which was passed by Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2014, also disproportionately harms the elderly and voters with disabilities.


The burden for this disparity will fall disproportionately on the Democratic Party. A Reuters analysis found that “more than half of the provisional and absentee votes discarded for minor errors in 2014 came from five large, Democratic-dominated urban counties.” The 14 Ohio counties that enforce the law in the strictest manner accounted 60 percent of the votes President Obama won in Ohio in 2012.

Donald Trump has pulled slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton in the key swing state, but the former Secretary of State remains within striking distance. Since Ohio leads the nation in provisional ballots and its provisional voters tend to be Democrats concentrated in the state’s urban centers, this week’s ruling could decide the presidential election.