Conflicting court rulings put Ohio’s voting rules in limbo

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio voter Keith Dehmann failed to list his birthdate when casting his absentee ballot in the 2014 general election and later tried to remedy the mistake. That same year, Linda and Gunther Lahm mixed up the envelopes for their absentee ballots and then overlooked birthdate errors when fixing the problem.

All three eligible voters in the key swing state had their ballots tossed under laws one federal judge has ruled unconstitutional, and another found otherwise.

The conflicting decisions for absentee and provisional ballots have put the state’s rules — and its voters — in legal limbo ahead of the presidential election as the issue is appealed.

The state’s Democratic Party is among those who challenged a series of Republican-backed voting changes in two separate lawsuits.

Under two laws passed in 2014, voters are required to accurately provide their names, addresses, birthdates, signatures and forms of ID when casting absentee or provisional ballots, otherwise they risk their votes not being counted. The laws also cut the time for voters to fix any problems to seven days from 10 days after the election.

In a June 7 decision, U.S. District Algenon Marbley said the voting rules cause ballots from qualified voters to be rejected because of “mere technical mistakes,” in violation of their equal-protection rights.

The state had argued the requirements help elections officials more easily identify voters and update registration information. But Marbley, who was nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton, blocked Ohio’s elections chief from enforcing the rules, finding that the state “failed to prove in any way how disenfranchising voters who fail to conform to the requirements furthers that goal.”

He also noted evidence that showed the laws disproportionately impact African-American voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

On May 24, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson came to the opposite conclusion and let the rules stand. Watson said the burden on voters was minimal and plaintiffs’ equal-protection claims failed, as did their attempt to show any discriminatory burden on African American voters.

Watson did side with Democrats in ruling that another law trimming early voting was unconstitutional. That GOP-backed law eliminated a week of early voting in which Ohioans could also register to vote, a period known as “golden week.” Watson, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said the law violates the Voting Rights Act and voters’ equal protection rights.

Watson said evidence presented in the case with regards to golden week suggests that black voters use same-day voter registration and early voting options at higher rates than whites. And while the court can’t predict African-American turnout in future elections, he said, “It is reasonable to conclude from this evidence that their right to vote will be modestly burdened” by the law.

Ohio’s elections chief is appealing Watson’s ruling on golden week and Marbley’s decision on the ballot rules.

Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted criticized both rulings earlier this month.

“The sad reality is that much of Ohio’s election laws are no longer made by their elected representatives, but rather by unelected federal judges in response to politically-motivated lawsuits,” he said in a statement.

Dehmann, a 39-year-old service member in the Air National Guard Reserve, mailed his absentee ballot without listing his birthdate. He was notified of the error and filled out a form to correct it. He later learned his vote was tossed after being contacted as part of the lawsuit that Marbley decided.

“It was just frustrating,” Dehmann said in an interview. “It kind of eats at you a little bit.”

Dehmann, of Lancaster, said he votes absentee by mail if he knows he’s going to be deployed, but he’s not sure he will again. “I’m probably going to make every effort to vote in person.”

The Lahms, also of Columbus, said in court filings they weren’t notified of the problems with their ballots until they were contacted during the same lawsuit.

“I thought, this has to be a prank call,” Linda Lahm said in an interview. The 68-year-old retired banker said she’s a former poll worker who frequently votes absentee by mail.

“I was completely horrified and then I was really angry,” she said. “We will never again vote absentee.”

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