WASHINGTON, D.C. — Yesterday, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and an individual voter filed a federal lawsuit challenging an Ohio law that makes it a crime for anyone other than a narrow set of authorized individuals to assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed absentee ballots.
The provision at the center of the lawsuit is part of Ohio’s broader 2023 voter suppression law — House Bill 458 — that was enacted in January 2023 by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature. The provision specifically makes it a felony for unauthorized individuals — those who are not election officials, postal workers or close family members — to “possess” or “return” an absentee ballot. Under the provision, close family members include spouses, parents, children and siblings, but not adult grandchildren or domestic partners.
According to the new lawsuit, many voters with disabilities cannot rely on the narrow set of family members prescribed by the law for assistance and instead depend “exclusively on in-home caregivers or reside in nursing homes and other full-time care facilities.” However under the challenged law, voters with disabilities cannot seek assistance from these non-familial individuals.
“This means the very people who are providing help to voters with disabilities—in some cases, with every facet of their day-to-day life, from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep in the evening—cannot assist them in exercising their “precious” and “fundamental” right to vote,” the lawsuits states.
The complaint explains how one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Jennifer Kucera — is severely burdened by the law as an individual with muscular dystrophy. In Ohio’s most recent August 2023 election, Ms. Kucera could not rely on her in-home professional caregiver for help and was instead forced to ask her elderly mother — who has mobility issues of her own — to return her completed absentee ballot.
In a press release from the ACLU of Ohio, Kucera stated: “Under the current laws, I am not allowed to complete my civic duty of voting if for any reason my mom is unable to help me vote, even though my caregivers would be available to help me. This must change!”
The plaintiffs allege that the provisions violate Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Section 208 of the VRA guarantees that “[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice” so long as the assistor is not the “the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”
The complaint also notes that in failing to define what it means to “possess” or “return” an absentee ballot, the law puts caregivers and others who might otherwise provide assistance at “substantial risk of arbitrary prosecution” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit asks the court to block the enforcement of the statute and to ensure that people beyond the family members enumerated in the law can assist voters with disabilities without threat of prosecution.
Yesterday’s lawsuit comes as the second legal challenge against Ohio’s 2023 voter suppression law. A federal lawsuit that was filed by a coalition of nonprofit groups immediately after H.B. 458’s enactment is ongoing. That lawsuit challenges multiple aspects of the law including its strict photo ID regime, advanced deadline for requesting and returning mail-in ballots, drop box restrictions and more.
Today’s lawsuit noted that in light of H.B. 458’s new photo ID requirements for in-person voting, “more voters have problems meeting the in-person voting requirements and thus need to vote absentee” — making the law’s limitations on voter assistance for mail-in voting all the more detrimental.