US appeals court says Ohio inmates don't get extra vote time

DAN SEWELL
FILE – In this March 4, 2008, file photo, voters cast their ballots in Ohio's primary election at a polling station in the former Coventry Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday, March 3, 2020, that people who get jailed in Ohio don't get the same ability to vote late as people who are hospitalized unexpectedly. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Federal appeals judges ruled Tuesday that people in Ohio who unexpectedly find themselves in jail ahead of an election should not be granted the same ability to vote late as those who are suddenly hospitalized.

A three-judge panel of the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a lower court ruling in favor of two men jailed the weekend before the 2018 elections. The men sued claiming unequal treatment and First Amendment violations. While inmates are required to meet the statewide absentee ballot requesting deadline of noon, three days before an election, hospitalized patents are given until 3 p.m. on election day to request an absentee ballot.

The state argued that inmates and patients aren't entitled to the same consideration because of the excessive burden that trying to deal with late ballots at jails would place on county boards of election, just at the same time that they have many other tasks to get done in the last hours before an election. Going to jails requires more advance notice, clearing security and locating the inmate in the facility, the judges found, in explaining how jailed are different voters from hospitalized ones.

The court also said that Ohio voters have “generous” opportunities to cast their ballot as early as about a month before election day.

“Because Ohio’s important regulatory interest in the orderly administration of elections outweighs the minimal burden that the state’s absentee ballot request deadline places on plaintiffs’ right to vote," Judge John Nalbandian wrote that the panel rules against the inmates.

A Washington-based voter rights group that argued for the inmates said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing the decision but will continue to fight nationally for inmates' voting rights.

Maggie Sheehan, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Frank LaRose, said by email that the ruling gives boards of election “an added degree of predictability.”

“Innocent until proven guilty should also apply to the right to vote,” said Mark Gaber, director of trial litigation at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “Our brave clients shined a light on this national issue. Unfortunately, the appeals court has downplayed the significance of the problem, which disproportionately hurts voters of color and low-income voters.”

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