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CLEVELAND — This evening, a federal judge ruled that Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s order limiting ballot drop boxes to one per county is unconstitutional. The decision comes as millions of voters are requesting absentee ballots to vote remotely this year due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The case was brought by Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP, and seven individual voters. Plaintiffs were represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP, the ACLU of Ohio, and local Cleveland counsel. 

Following Ohio’s April 28 primary election—which had been delayed from March 17—the League of Women Voters of Ohio and county election boards began expressing the need for counties to install more than one secure drop box ahead of November. However, on August 12, Secretary of State LaRose issued an executive order limiting drop boxes to one per county. Today’s ruling allows counties to install more drop boxes for voters to return their absentee ballots safely and securely. 

The court noted that there are many voters without cars for whom travel to deliver their ballots would be very difficult, and that the physical site of the board of election office cannot accommodate a significant number of cars coming to deliver ballots. In addition, the court ruled that the Secretary of State has not advanced any legitimate reason to prohibit a county board of elections from utilizing off-site drop boxes or off-site delivery of ballots to staff.

Plaintiffs argued that multiple drop boxes were needed so that more voters could drop off their absentee ballots and applications without increasing the burden on the US Postal Service and to reduce in-person lines for early and election day voting. The need for more secure drop boxes was compounded by delays in US Postal Service delivery and the elimination of 34 mail sorting machines throughout the state, which have caused many voters to lose confidence in the mail system.

Joining the organizations on the case are individual voters Beatrice Griffin, Sarah Rikleen, C. Ellen Connally, Matthew Nowling, Ryllie Jesionowski, Soli Collins, and Marcus Germany.

Read the ruling here.

The following reactions are from plaintiffs and counsel:

“The court’s order protects the right to vote for tens of thousands of Ohioans, especially black voters and people of color who disproportionately reside in some of the most populous county in the state,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “No voter should have to sacrifice their health and well-being to cast their ballot. Drop boxes have proven to be a secure method of collecting ballots, and are crucial in allowing voters to safely cast their vote during this unprecedented pandemic. The court’s ruling is a success in the ongoing fight against eleventh-hour voter suppression efforts.”

“We thank Judge Polster for standing up for the people of Ohio and stopping Secretary LaRose from infringing on the fundamental rights of Ohioans, especially those who can’t afford postage or have reliable transportation,” said Andre Washington, Ohio State President of A. Philip Randolph Institute. “It is now time for LaRose to stop fighting us and get this done so that everyone has safe, reliable options for returning their absentee applications and ballots.”

“Secretary LaRose should work with election officials to provide additional secure ways for voters to participate in this election amid a deadly pandemic,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Following Ohio’s problematic primary in April, we pushed for multiple drop boxes per county so that voters could cast their ballots safely and securely. More Ohioans than ever will cast absentee ballots this election, and this ruling allows counties to better serve voters, either by installing more drop boxes or sending bipartisan teams to satellite locations to collect absentee applications and ballots. This is a win for election officials and voters, alike.”

“Tonight’s ruling is a critical victory in the fight to ensure that Ohioans can exercise their right to vote safely,” said Matt Nowling, a plaintiff in the case. “Right now, folks across Ohio are turning out in droves to make their voices are heard. It is imperative that Ohioans have the ability to access secure ballot drop boxes. I urge Secretary LaRose to drop his appeal, and allow for the people to make their voices heard in this election.”

 “We are thrilled with the Court’s decision that Secretary LaRose’s prohibitions on off-site drop boxes and ballot delivery impose a significant burden on Ohio voters’ fundamental right to vote,” said Dechert LLP partner, Erik Snapp. “We remain committed to ensuring that all eligible voters in the United States are able to vote safely, securely and without unnecessary burden.”

“This evening the District Court entered an order requiring the Secretary of State to permit boards of elections to install drop boxes in multiple locations. But rather than accept legal guidance—guidance he had long claimed he would abide by—the Secretary immediately appealed,” said Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. “We will fight to uphold the court’s decision and secure the right of Ohioans to vote without having to jeopardize their health or the health of their loved ones.”

“After multiple judges found to be false Frank LaRose’s claim that Ohio law ties his hands, a federal judge saw through the rest of LaRose’s excuses for limiting ballot drop-off locations, and held his voter suppression to be unconstitutional in the midst of a deadly pandemic that’s cost over 211,000 American lives and infected over 7,000,000 people,” said Subodh Chandra, attorney for the plaintiffs. “But LaRose is still fighting to force Ohioans to choose between their health and their right to vote. He needs to stop his transparent efforts to suppress the vote in more populous counties—and just let Ohio’s county elections boards make satellite ballot drop-off locations more widely available to their voters.”

“This case started on a grassroots level, with James Schuster, an Ohio attorney, working with individual plaintiffs, Beatrice Griffin, C. Ellen Connally, Matthew Nowling, Ryllie Jesionowski and Soli Collins, to initiate the case,” said James Schuster, Esq., principal of JSA LLP, of Cleveland, Ohio. “Schuster then approached the Lawyers’ Committee to join in on the case, given its expertise on election law matters and its ability to bring in the national Dechert law firm, to pursue this matter in advance of Ohioans’ fundamental constitutional rights. Since the day Secretary of State LaRose issued Declaration 2020-16, it has been a long haul, getting the right pieces of the puzzle to successfully litigate this case.”

“I have voted in every election since 1960.  I consider voting as a privilege and sacred duty as a citizen,” said Beatrice Griffin, plaintiff in the case. “In joining this effort I was propelled, not only by my own need, but my awareness that many of the 860,000 voters in Cuyahoga County do not have cars and would spend hours reaching the one downtown drop box location on public transportation. This is an unfair burden on any voter.”

The Ohio Secretary of State has filed notice to appeal immediately following the decision. Voters are encouraged to reach out to their board of election to understand their drop box options and encourage the use of more ballot drop boxes for greater voter access. Absentee and early voting in Ohio began on October 6 and runs until November 2. The last day for Ohio voters to request an absentee ballot is October 31.