The state of Ohio asked a federal judge Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit voter advocates filed this week over a new primary-election plan state lawmakers adopted after polls were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a response filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Ohio, state attorneys argued that changing the election again would sow more confusion among voters and that voting-rights groups’ lawsuit is built on the erroneous claim that Ohio’s election date had been changed.
“It is truly unavoidable that Ohio is now on its third schedule for completing the primary election,” state attorneys wrote. The state’s plan “ends the chaos and offers Ohio voters and boards a certain path forward for completing Ohio’s 2020 primary. But, a new source of confusion has cropped up: this lawsuit.”
The League of Women Voters of Ohio, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and a group of voters argued Monday in a federal lawsuit that the plan violates the National Voter Registration Act and the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
But Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office wrote that it is the state legislature, not the courts, that set elections guidelines and that it would be inappropriate for the court to grant policy changes that “special interest groups and political parties” could not convince lawmakers to enact.
“Elections conducted by litigation invite special interest groups to intervene to plead for special benefits and pet causes. But when elections are conducted by statute, one decision-making body makes one set of rules. And that is precisely what happened here: the Ohio General Assembly responded to a once-in-a-generation pandemic that shut down in-person voting for the 2020 presidential primary election.”
The legislature’s plan extended the primary until April 28 but eliminated almost all in-person voting. Instead, lawmakers directed Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to send postcards to about 8 million registered voters with instructions for obtaining an absentee ballot that could be mailed to their boards of elections.
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Voting rights advocates argued in their lawsuit that the legislature ignored state and local elections officials in adopting their plan and that it must be changed “to prevent the state from compounding the current public-health crisis into a crisis for democracy in Ohio.”
State lawmakers adopted their own plan after Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the polls closed hours before they were set to open on the March 17 primary Election Day.
But voting-rights advocates believe the new law violates federal statutes and the Constitution. For example, the National Voter Registration Act requires registrations be allowed up to 30 days before Election Day. But the state’s plan cuts off voter registration on Feb. 18, a month before polls originally were set to open, instead of 30 days before the election’s new conclusion on April 28.
The state responded that the argument about the voter registration deadline is built on a faulty premise: that Ohio changed its election date. The new law maintains the election date as March 17, but merely extends voting beyond that day, the state wrote.
While voter advocates said the timeline for the state’s plan was too compressed, Yost’s office argued that “more than four weeks” of voting was “ample time” for voters to apply for absentee ballots, for boards of elections to process the applications and mail the ballots and for voters to complete and return the ballots.