close
close

The lawsuit alleges that Ohio law violates the rights of voters with disabilities


Does Ohio law violate the rights of voters with disabilities? A federal court could decide before the November election.

play

  • Ohio law limits which dependents can help voters with disabilities return mail-in ballots.
  • Supporters say the law violates the Federal Voting Rights Act.
  • Republicans have based their defense of the law on concerns about voting.

Jennifer Kucera depended on her elderly mother to vote in the election last August.

Kucera, who lives in a suburb of Cleveland, has muscular dystrophy and requires the assistance of home caregivers to complete daily tasks. She cannot drive and must use public or rented transportation to get from place to place. Even dealing with mail is difficult: Kucera does not have easy access to the mailbox in her apartment complex and asks caregivers to open and mail letters on her behalf.

Given these challenges, Kucera cast an absentee ballot for Ohio's August 8, 2023 election. But it wasn't an easy process, according to a federal lawsuit filed last year: State law limits which relatives can help voters with disabilities and doesn't allow caregivers — or even grandchildren — to return a person's ballot. This forced Kucera to seek help from her mother, who herself has mobility issues and doesn't live nearby.

More: Ohio will exclude inactive voters before the November election. How to check your status

“The support limitations are unrelated to the realities facing voters with disabilities in Ohio,” said the complaint filed in December by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kucera's story is at the center of a nationally publicized legal battle that unfolded in the months leading up to the November election. In 2023, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country as part of sweeping changes to the Buckeye State's election system. Republicans in the Legislature introduced the bill to boost voter confidence after misinformation spread widely in 2020.

While the ID requirement garnered widespread attention, critics of the law say it also violates the rights of voters with disabilities. Advocates are sounding the alarm about so-called ballot harvesting, arguing that restricting who can return ballots will help curb already rare cases of voter fraud.

“When people collect boxes of ballots and put them in a mailbox, there is a possibility of fraud,” said state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, who has pushed changes to election law. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to secure our elections and make sure people know their vote is counted and counted correctly in Ohio.”

What does Ohio law say about returning ballots?

Ohio law allows any voter to request an absentee ballot, but people who are hospitalized or homebound because of an illness or disability often need additional assistance. To this end, the law allows certain family members to conduct absentee voting for their relatives, including spouses, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

The state's new election law did not change the list of dependents. It's been around for years. But advocates believe it violates a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that allows voters with disabilities to receive assistance from anyone except their employer or union representative. According to the Secretary of State, this policy applies to voters who need assistance at a polling station.

It was already a felony for someone who wasn't on the list to possess someone else's mail-in ballot. The updated law also states that returning a product is a criminal offense.

“There are reasonable aid workers who are specifically excluded from providing assistance,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “We believe that grandchildren, roommates, significant others and caregivers should all be able to help a voter.”

Miller said it was unclear what activities would be prohibited under the law, particularly for groups like the league that send volunteers to help voters. According to court documents, before filing the lawsuit, the ACLU contacted Secretary of State Frank LaRose to clarify what was allowed and what was not. For example, would it be illegal for a caregiver or roommate to mail in a sealed absentee ballot envelope?

A spokesman for LaRose referred a reporter to Attorney General Dave Yost's office, which declined to comment on pending litigation.

“Families are all kinds of things”

Republicans have based their defense of Ohio's law on concerns about ballot harvesting – derogatorily known as “ballot harvesting” – a practice in which third parties return completed ballots on behalf of others.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states allow another person to return a voter's mail-in ballot. Policies vary: Some limit it to family members, while others also allow caregivers or voter-selected people to do so.

Skeptics of the 2020 election delved deeper into ballot harvesting after battleground states changed their rules for the COVID-19 pandemic. In Wisconsin, for example, the Election Commission allowed mail-in ballots to be sent to long-term care facilities, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

The Ohio lawsuit caught the attention of the state GOP and the Republican National Committee. In their motion to intervene, Republicans said they had a “significant interest in preventing changes in the 'competitive environment' of elections.”

“Ohio’s election laws should be decided by Ohioans, not out-of-state dark money groups,” said former RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a January statement. “The RNC is proud to join with the (Ohio GOP) in submitting this intervention.” Protect the Buckeye State's ballot collection ban from inappropriate left-wing attacks and ensure Ohio voters can cast their ballots with full confidence in their election system .”

Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the lawsuit is not about “letting anyone off a bunch of ballots.” She claims Ohio has failed to accommodate voters with disabilities and ensure their voices are heard.

As a result, the lawsuit says, people like Carol Canavan of North Canavan are unable to help their loved ones — even though Canavan helps run the league's Canton region. Her sister-in-law is locked up at home and only goes to doctor's appointments. That's why she requested a postal vote for the November 2023 election. Her completed ballot was lost in the mail and was not counted.

Canavan lives just seven miles from her sister-in-law. She said she wasn't sure what happened to her sister-in-law's ballot, but believes it wouldn't have been a problem if Canavan had been able to return it for her.

“These days, families are all kinds of things,” Canavan said. “If you have a loved one that you trust, like a caregiver, then it seems like you can’t allow that person to vote?”

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which covers the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *