COVID-19 Special Coverage
Federal appeals court blocks electronic signature gathering for Ohio ballot
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Federal appeals court blocks electronic signature gathering for Ohio ballot

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Tuesday blocked a lower court’s order that Ohio’s election officials must accept electronically-signed and witnessed petitions.

Three individuals and two organizations, who are obtaining signatures in support of initiatives to amend the Ohio Constitution and propose municipal ordinances, allege that COVID-19 and the state’s stay-at-home orders have made it impossibly difficult for them to meet the state’s preexisting requirements for initiatives to secure a place on the November ballot. They claim Ohio’s ballot-initiative requirements violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and moved to enjoin the state from enforcing these requirements against them.

The appeals court held that Ohio law is not a severe burden that excludes or virtually excludes electors or initiatives from the ballot. The court pointed out that even during the pandemic, the plaintiffs can advertise their initiatives within the bounds of the current situation, such as through social or traditional media inviting interested electors to contact them and bring the petitions to the electors’ homes to sign. Plaintiffs could also bring their petitions to the public by speaking with electors and witnessing the signatures from a safe distance, and sterilizing writing instruments between signatures.

The court found it compelling that the witness and ink requirements would help prevent fraud by ensuring that the signatures are authentic; the deadlines allow the government time to verify signatures in an orderly and fair fashion, while also providing initiative proponents time to challenge any adverse decision in court.

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