By Nicholas Matuszewski
As with most states, Ohio has seen a number of election law cases this year centered around the COVID-19 Pandemic. One of these cases is Ohio Democratic Party v. LaRose. In late August, the Ohio Democratic Party and Lewis Goldfarb submitted a formal complaint in the Ohio Court of Common Pleas, Franklin County, against Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
The complaint alleged that LaRose erred when he decided that the state would use secure drop boxes to facilitate the return of marked absentee ballots but prohibited the placement of the drop boxes in any location other than the county board election offices. The plaintiffs argue that state law does not prohibit placing these drop boxes in locations other than the county board election offices. For that reason, and because many Ohio voters do not live near their county board election offices, the plaintiffs believe that LaRose should allow for more drop boxes in different locations.
Furthermore, LaRose stated that if “it’s legal to [add more drop boxes], then I’d be happy to have the county bipartisan board of elections make that decision about whether that’s best for their county or not to add additional drop boxes.” As such, the plaintiffs in this case asked the court to pronounce that “Ohio law does not prohibit county boards of elections from having more than one secure drop box. . .or from designating additional locations other than outside the board’s office. . .”. Their hope is that such a declaration by the court would motivate LaRose into living up to the multiple statements he has made alleging that he would be open to allowing more drop boxes as long as the law does not prohibit him from doing so.
Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this litigation more important than it would be in a normal election year. Afterall, LaRose himself projects that absentee ballots could be up 50% from the 2016 election. The plaintiffs in this case argue that this increase necessitates the expansion of drop box accessibility.
A counter argument may be that the ballots could simply be mailed to the appropriate county board election officials through the USPS. The plaintiffs responded to this particular argument in the complaint by saying, ”the COVID-19 pandemic and internal policy changes within the USPS have led to delays in mail delivery that may result in absentee ballot applications not being delivered to boards of elections on time.”
On September 15, 2020, Judge Richard A. Frye delivered a declaratory judgment in this case. Judge Frye held that requiring counties to provide a drop box was legal, but that limiting counties to a single drop box in one proscribed location is “is arbitrary and unreasonable.” Judge Frye further explained that having one drop box per county is unfair because some counties are far larger than others, meaning many Ohioans will be required to travel much further to turn in their absentee ballots than others.
Essentially, the court determined that more drop boxes could be implemented at the discretion of individual counties and that there was no rule prohibiting them from doing so. Whether this will solve the unfairness issues is yet to be seen.