Ohio: Another Victory for Voting Rights

October 11, 2012

Contact: Brennan Center for Justice, Erik Opsal (erik.opsal@nyu.edu, 646-292-8356); Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kim Hayes (khayes@lawyerscommittee.org, 202-662-8318)

Voting rights advocates scored another victory Thursday when the Sixth Circuit ruled that Ohio election officials must count all provisional ballots, even those cast in the wrong precinct due to poll-worker error.

This is the latest in a series of legal victories against restrictive voting laws, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

“This decision is a clear victory for Ohio voters,” said Vishal Agraharkar, Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “When citizens take responsibility to go to their polling places and vote, it is wrong to throw out their votes just because of poll worker errors. Our voting system should be free, fair, and accessible. All Ohioans should have the opportunity to make their voices heard this election.”

“Ohio has known for years that it has serious problems with its provisional ballot rules,” said Bob Kengle, co-Director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We are very happy with the court’s wrong-precinct ruling, but it is unfortunate that it still is necessary for the federal courts to intervene to protect the rights of Ohio’s voters.”

“This is a great victory for Ohio voters,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “It vindicates the fundamental principle that voters shouldn't have their votes rejected because of someone else's mistake.”

Voters are entitled to cast a provisional ballot if their name does not appear on the voter registration list in their precinct on Election Day. Those ballots are later counted if the voters’ information is verified. But Ohio law rejects provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct — even when voters arrive at the right location and are handed the wrong ballot by a poll worker. More than 10,000 wrong-precinct ballots were thrown out in the 2008 election in Ohio.

With complex ballot procedures and voter identification requirements, Ohio has one of the highest provisional ballot rates in the country. Adding to the confusion, most voting precincts are located in polling locations containing more than one precinct, increasing the chance that a voter will be given a ballot for the wrong precinct even if he or she appears at the right polling location.

The case, SEIU v. Husted, was decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Brennan Center — along with Professor Daniel P. Tokaji of Moritz College of Law, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Arnold & Porter LLP — filed an amicus brief on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio.