Testimony wraps up in dispute over rules for Ohio ballots


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Testimony in a federal trial that could impact how thousands of ballots are cast and counted in swing state Ohio wrapped up Thursday, though final court briefs are still expected from attorneys before the judge rules.

At issue in the case are several changes to the requirements for absentee or provisional ballots that the Republican-led state legislature passed in 2014.

The Ohio Democratic Party along with advocates for the homeless are suing the state’s elections chief claiming that the laws and the procedures for counting those ballots create new hurdles for voters, particularly minorities. Among other arguments, they allege that numerous valid ballots are being rejected because of technical errors. They also say voters lack sufficient opportunity to correct the problems, in violation of their 14th Amendment rights.

Attorneys for the state say the challenged laws are reasonable, nondiscriminatory and impose a minimal burden on voters.

Provisional ballots are those are cast when a voter’s identity is in question, among other reasons. The voter’s eligibility is verified later.

The challenged laws require voters to provide certain identifying information on their absentee ballot envelopes or provisional ballot affirmations, such as their address and date of birth.

The plaintiffs argue the laws’ requirements are equivalent to modern-day literacy tests for voters.

The state disagrees, contending it’s not unreasonable to expect voters to give their address and birthdate.

Attorneys for Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted say having multiple identifiers helps election officials more easily locate voters in their databases. They also argue election data does not show any marked change in the rates at which boards accepted or rejected absentee and provisional ballots under the rules. They cite figures showing the statewide acceptance rates improved in 2014, compared to 2010.

U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley has heard testimony from county elections officials, election experts and others in the bench trial that began on March 16. The

The plaintiffs say the laws, along with Husted’s directives, fail to provide uniform standards for elections boards to apply when determining whether to reject or count ballots, leaving it to the discretion of the state’s 88 county boards of elections in violation of voters’ equal protection rights.

Some witnesses have told the court that some valid ballots were tossed while others with flaws were counted.

Meghan Lee, director of the Meigs County Board of Elections, acknowledged in testimony that some 2014 absentee ballots were counted, despite not being in line with the law’s requirements. For instance, an absentee ballot from a nursing home resident had a birthdate error but was still counted. Yet another voter’s absentee ballot was rejected in that election because of a missing or incorrect birthdate.

William Anthony, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, testified that about a dozen ballots in 2014 should have been counted, or examined further by officials, but were thrown out. Anthony, who is also the county’s Democratic Party chairman, later blamed instructions provided by the state.

The plaintiffs want the judge to permanently block the challenged laws from being enforced.

The lawsuit dates to a 2006 challenge of a law that specified when provisional ballots could be counted toward vote totals.