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(CLEVELAND) Ohio’s requirement that each of its counties are permitted only one secure ballot drop box is unconstitutional, a federal lawsuit filed last night against Secretary of State Frank LaRose argues. The suit challenges an August 12 directive to permit only one secure ballot drop box in each of the state’s 88 counties because it places an excessive burden on the fundamental right to vote of all Ohioans and arbitrarily burdens those in more populous counties.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP, JSA LLP and the Chandra Law Firm LLP are representing the plaintiffs and are seeking immediate injunctive and declaratory relief that would prohibit enforcement of LaRose’s directive. The lawsuit seeks a court order allowing counties to install multiple secure drop boxes at different locations or allowing voters to drop off their absentee ballots at any polling place in the county in which they reside.

“It is time for Ohio’s highest election official to stop using voter suppression tactics, and focus his efforts on making sure all Ohio voters can safely cast their ballot during this unprecedented pandemic,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “Voters who do not have personal access to reliable transportation, or who are wary of using mass transit during this time may not have the ability to reach the singular drop box in their county. Secretary LaRose is hindering the fundamental right to vote at a time when he should be doing all he can to encourage voter turnout and voter confidence by promoting options that have already been proven to be safe and secure.” 

The lawsuit, Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute v. LaRose, was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP and local counsel are representing seven individual plaintiffs who are eligible, registered voters looking to vote by mail in the November 2020 general election and three organizational plaintiffs: the A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Ohio the Ohio State Conference of the NAACP.

The lawsuit alleges that demand for an increased number of drop boxes has been magnified by delays in Postal Service Delivery as a result of significant internal policy changes, which has caused voters to lose faith in the mail system. By limiting drop boxes to just one in each county, LaRose is engaging in voter suppression by requiring people to leave their homes and go to public places during a pandemic. This disproportionately affects communities of color.

“We are committed to ensuring that all eligible voters are able to cast a ballot safely and securely and with confidence that their vote will be counted,” said Dechert LLP partner Neil Steiner. “Particularly in light of the well-documented issues with mail delivery, drop boxes for the return of mail-in ballots is a critical part of ensuring that all Ohioans are able to exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

Jim Schuster, Cleveland-based attorney and local counsel in this case said, “This case is paramount for preserving and protecting the right to vote in Ohio’s urban counties and for Ohio’s Black citizens. Absent the relief sought by this case, the State of Ohio would be treating urban and Black Ohioans as a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a person. Affording a sufficient number of ballot drop boxes for all Ohio counties, based on their respective populations, is essential for the equal protection of all Ohio voters.  Absent the relief, Ohio will have systemically suppressed the vote against those from Ohio’s cities and its Black communities.”

“Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s scheme to suppress our most fundamental right—our vote—isn’t just abhorrent: it’s recklessly homicidal,” commented Subodh Chandra, a Cleveland-based civil-rights lawyer, former Cleveland law director, and local counsel in the case. “LaRose imposed his edict to limit ballot drop boxes to just one per county when (1) by election day, a deadly virus will have killed over 250,000 of our fellow Americans and seriously sickened millions, (2) the White House and Postmaster General are choking off mail service, and (3) Ohio’s largest counties have hundreds of thousands of voters for just a single drop box. Why is LaRose so willing not just to undermine democracy in the most important election of our lives, but to endanger Ohioans? Voters shouldn’t have to choose between their lives and their votes. Federal courts must stop LaRose’s scheme and ensure voting is both accessible and safe for all.”

Organizational Plaintiffs said the following:

“Secretary of State LaRose’s ban on additional ballot boxes is nonsensical in the age of COVID, when voters are concerned with protecting their health while exercising their constitutional right to vote,” said Andre Washington, Ohio state president of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute. “We are committed to fighting voter suppression so that Ohioans can exercise their right to vote safely and without barriers.” 

“Access to the vote depends on safe, reliable options for casting a ballot, and limiting drop boxes to one per county severely diminishes this access. To do so during a deadly pandemic is negligent and foolhardy,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Ohio should emulate other states by allowing multiple, secure drop boxes per county, otherwise communities of color, rural Ohioans, immunocompromised individuals, and income-sensitive voters lacking affordable transportation face unfair barriers to the ballot. As the COVID-19 virus continues to threaten the lives of Ohioans, the State should be focused on expanding safe voting options, not reducing those we do have.” 

“The Ohio State Conference of the NAACP is pushing for more drop boxes so that our voters have the option of voting without having to rely on the postal service –and so that other barriers to voting are less of a factor,” said Tom Roberts, president of the Ohio NAACP, “At a time when we are all dealing with a global pandemic, the State should be doing everything possible for voters to cast their ballots without having unnecessary challenges such as travel time, long lines, traffic jams, and lack of transportation, to name a few obstacles.”

Read the full lawsuit.