Federal Judge Halts Ohio Voter Suppression Scheme
For decades, Republicans have made it clear that they don't give a flying fuck about the principles underpinning our democratic system. To the GOP, the will of the people doesn't matter; the only thing that actually matters is gaining and holding onto power.
As part of the Republican Party's plan to steal the 2020 elections by any means necessary, earlier this week, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued a directive limiting every county in the state — with no regard for geography, population, or feasibility — to just one drop box each to collect absentee ballots.
After initially dismissing the case, Ohio federal Judge Dan Aaron Polster reversed course on Friday, reinstating the lawsuit filed by civil rights organizations and individual voters alike, and striking down LaRose's one Dropbox per county rule. Finding that LaRose's ratfucking violates the rights of voters under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, the court held that the directive “significantly burdens the right to vote, and, ultimately, may have the effect of deterring many people from voting or forcing them to risk their health by voting in-person." As such,
The Secretary is enjoined from enforcing that portion of Directive 2020-16 that prohibits a county board of elections from installing a secure drop box at a location other than the board of elections office, and the Secretary is also enjoined from prohibiting a board from deploying its staff for off-site ballot delivery.
Suck it, LaRose.
Here's the deal
Like most states, Ohio is dealing with an unprecedented number of people voting absentee because of the pandemic. In addition to allowing absentee ballots to be mailed in, Ohio law allows county election boards to set up drop boxes for voters to return their ballots.
The main job of the Ohio Secretary of State is to facilitate voting statewide. Rather than using his position as the state's top election official to protect the voting rights of Ohioans, LaRose instead decided to use his power to try to disenfranchise as many people of color as he possibly can.
Ohio has 88 counties, with populations ranging from under 10,000 to over 1 million residents. Obviously, with the huge differences in the makeup and geography of these counties, they are all going to have different needs when it comes to procedures for receiving ballots. That's why each county in the state has its own county election board to determine the needs of its voters.
Purposefully Ignoring the fact that Vinson County, population 13,000, has different needs from Cuyahoga County, population 1.28 million, LaRose limited every county in the state to just one ballot drop box each. If LaRose's directive were to remain in place, it would have the clear and obvious effect of disenfranchising people in the state's most populous cities and counties. While we are totally sure that this is entirely incidental and not at all the entire purpose of LaRose's order, these counties are where most of the state's Black, LatinX, and Democratic voters are located.
As the court found,
The burden that the Directive imposes on large counties is exhibited by the fact that it may be said that the 7,903 registered voters in Noble County may find a single drop box location sufficient, the record demonstrates that the 858,041 registered voters in Cuyahoga County will likely not.
Multiple lawsuits challenging this bullshit were filed almost immediately. In a parallel case filed in state court, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that state law did not require completed ballots to be dropped off to the physical locations of election boards and that off-site drop boxes were totally fine. Despite that order, LaRose was like, "Nah, I think we're just gonna make it as hard as we can for people in urban areas to drop off their ballots" and refused to accommodate requests from large counties to set up additional drop box locations.
Earlier this week, Judge Polster had dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice (meaning it could be re-filed by the same plaintiffs), believing the state court order would result in LaRose allowing counties to set up more drop boxes. After it became clear that LaRose had no intention of changing his directive the judge reversed his earlier ruling, saying it was based on his "incorrect interpretation" of LaRose's action.
And Judge Polster pulled no punches, noting at the beginning of his order that:
The power of a federal judge to enjoin an order of a duly elected state official should be exercised only when it is essential to vindicate a vital constitutional right, and when all methods short of doing so have been tried. That is the case here.
Judge Polster's ruling also makes it clear that he gave LaRose plenty of occasions to stop fucking up before issuing an injunction.
The Court has given the Secretary every opportunity to address the problem identified at the September 23 hearing, and he has been unwilling or unable to do so. At this late date, with voting already underway, the Court has no alternative but to address the constitutionality of Directive 2020-16, and any subsequent directives which emanate from it. The right to vote guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments is without question one of the most important rights guaranteed by our Constitution. The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the anxiety over whether the U.S. Postal Service will be able to handle the unprecedented number of ballots being returned by mail, is posing unprecedented challenges to voters and boards of election. Under these unprecedented circumstances, Plaintiffs have made a substantial showing that Secretary LaRose's prohibitions on off-site drop boxes and ballot delivery are unconstitutional, and Plaintiffs have demonstrated all the other conditions necessary to warrant the Court issuing a preliminary injunction.
As anyone with a tinge of common sense who is not drinking the GOP kool-aid can see, the only purpose of LaRose's limit on ballot drop boxes had nothing to do with anything other than trying to fix the election and keep his party in power.
The record reflects that, absent injunctive relief, registered voters who reside in larger counties will be forced to spend an unreasonable amount of time traveling to a single drop box location at the board – ultimately 1) leading voters to forgo their fundamental right to vote or 2) substantially burdening voters with long commutes and long lines leading to a form of voter suppression. Voting began on October 6, and absent injunctive relief, registered voters will be deprived of a fair election.
Let's lawsplain this
Here in the United States, we have this handy little thing called a constitution. And while the US Constitution is far from perfect, it nonetheless clearly prohibits these kinds of blatant attempts to fix elections (at least until Justice Handmaiden Barrett is on the bench).
As Judge Polster noted, "it is beyond dispute that federal courts have jurisdiction over suits to enjoin state officials from interfering with federal rights." And that is pretty clearly what LaRose is trying to do, here. Like the court summarized,
The state's procedures must be fair. [...] They must not place any burden upon voting beyond what is necessary to ensure a fair election, and they may not impose an undue burden upon any suspect class of citizens. [...] Even facially neutral procedures may have a disparate adverse impact upon certain groups of voters. And that impact must be analyzed in the context of the unprecedented conditions surrounding the November 3, 2020 election.
In examining the effect of the state's ratfucking on voters, the court found that LaRose's directive “particularly burdens the right to vote of Ohio residents who are poor and people of color." Judge Polster also noted that LaRose had “gloss[ed] over the risks and obstacles that those options present under today's unprecedented conditions[,]" and recognized that COVID-19, like LaRose's actions, “particularly burdens the right to vote of Ohio residents who are poor and people of color."
The judge also recognized that Donald Trump and Louis DeJoy's attempts to destroy the Post Office make ballot drop boxes even more important for voters this year.
It is also indisputable that we are living in the unprecedented juxtaposition of the worst pandemic in a century coupled with reasonable concern and anxiety over the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle what will undoubtedly be the largest number of absentee voters in Ohio's history[.] This year, the drastic procedural changes recently implemented by the Postal Service and the resulting disruption and delay in delivery has created reasonable anxiety over the ability of the Postal Service to get ballots delivered to voters in a timely fashion, and then to deliver those ballots to the Board of Elections in each county. The obstacles that voters face if they chose to vote by mail is evident by the fact that, as stated above, two federal judges have recently enjoined the U.S. Postal Service from implementing procedural changes which they found would adversely impact the delivery of ballots leading to disenfranchisement.
The challengers presented a ton of evidence showing how LaRose's plan would disenfranchise voters, particularly non-white voters in the state's most populous counties.
Plaintiffs introduced testimony that approximately 15% of Cincinnati and Cleveland's voting population (who are primarily poor and person of color), will have to travel more than 90 minutes to and from their single drop box location.
LaRose had the audacity to claim that his order disenfranchising voters was necessary to equal the playing field for voters across the state. The court roundly rejected that ridiculous argument.
Secretary LaRose contends that the Directive is necessary to ensure that all Ohioans have the same opportunity to securely cast their votes in drop boxes. The problem with this rationale is that all counties are not equal in population or in geographic size. Giving all voters an equal opportunity would require multiple drop boxes in heavily populated counties to account for their population. The federal guidelines in fact call for one drop box for every 15,000–20,000 voters. The Secretary offers the rationale that the prohibition promotes uniformity. However, uniformity without a valid underlying reason for the chosen rule is not a justification. While voters have no right to a drop box, "[h]aving once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person's vote over that of another."
As for LaRose's claim that drop box limits are necessary to stop voter fraud?
It is even easier to reject the Secretary's second justification. No evidence was introduced at the hearing to support the conclusory reference to fraud in the Secretary's brief.
And that's not all!
The Secretary's justifications for the Directive are further undercut by his own recent public statements that his preference was for multiple drop boxes, assuming they were permitted under the law or ordered by a court. Specifically, in late August, the Secretary stated "I think it would be a great thing if we could if the state legislature were to authorize it, or a judge's order. I would be happy to see more drop boxes in more places throughout the state. As long as it had the bipartisan support of those boards of elections, and as long as those drop boxes were secure and under video surveillance." The Secretary said nothing about uniformity, security, or fraud.
Suck it, LaRose
At a court hearing, LaRose asked the court to stay the order if it issued a preliminary injunction, which would stop the order from going into effect while he appealed. Judge Polster gave LaRose a firm LOLNOPE to that request, writing:
The Court will not issue a stay. As stated above, we are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century coupled with reasonable concern over the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle what will undoubtedly be the largest number of absentee voters in Ohio's history. The Secretary has not advanced any legitimate reason to prohibit a county board of elections from utilizing off-site drop boxes and/or off-site delivery of ballots to staff. Voting began October 6, the Cuyahoga County board voted to begin collecting ballots at public libraries on October 13, other county boards may now vote to implement plans for off-site collection, and it is time for this litigation to end.
Republicans have shown, time and time again, that they have absolutely no qualms with using every tool at their disposal to steal elections, the will of the people be damned. Although LaRose has already stated his intent to appeal the decision, we sincerely hope the Sixth Circuit joins Judge Polster in telling him to go to hell.
Here's the order:
[ LaRose Directive ]
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