Suit aims to protect Ohio arrestees' voting rights

LISA CORNWELL Associated Press Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Several community groups sued Monday to protect the voting rights of people arrested in the state the weekend before Election Day and detained through the election.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Cincinnati against Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which is representing the groups filing the lawsuit, said in a statement that the legal action was taken "because those arrested after the deadline for requesting absentee ballots have no way to vote."

The lawsuit charges that the alleged disenfranchisement violates those voters' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process and violates the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately impacting black voters. The groups want a court order preventing the state from enforcing the deadline for absentee ballot requests for pretrial detainees and those convicted of misdemeanors and to provide a means of voting for all those voters equivalent to what is provided for hospitalized Ohioans.

The lawsuit also wants Husted to be required to notify the 88 county boards of the rights of confined voters and to direct the boards on how to enforce those rights.

Husted spokesman Matthew McClellan said his office is reviewing the lawsuit.

"We now have a situation where one federal court has said Ohio cannot make special accommodations for the military and another court could require the state to give special considerations to people in jail, which makes no sense," McClellan said in an email.

Burke said that he wasn't pleased to be included in the lawsuit, but "I appreciate the point they are making."

"It would not be difficult for the Hamilton County board to do what they want, and we do it for people in hospitals," he said. "Just because you are arrested doesn't mean you are guilty and if you have simply been arrested for a misdemeanor, you don't lose your right to vote."

The attorney general's office didn't immediately return a call Monday.

David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center prisoner-rights group, says that while Ohio inmates convicted of felonies are not allowed to vote while in prison, those convicted of only misdemeanors are not prevented by state law from voting even if they are in jail. Persons in jail on pending charges -- whether misdemeanors or felonies -- and who are awaiting trial can vote under Ohio law if they are arrested prior to the weekend before the election because they have time to request an absentee ballot, Singleton said.

The law sets a noon deadline the Saturday before the election for people confined in jail to request absentee ballots by mail, which means that those entering custody Friday evening and remaining in jail through Election Day will not have an opportunity to request an absentee ballot, according to the lawsuit

The lawsuit also states that people who are hospitalized shortly before the election need only deliver their applications for absentee ballots to the director of elections in their county by 3 p.m. Election Day. Elections directors can allow a family member to deliver the ballot if the request is approved.

"Jailed voters should be treated just like those who are hospitalized due to medical emergencies," Singleton said.

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