COLUMBUS — A federal appeals court on Monday resurrected a lawsuit against Secretary of State Jon Husted that was filed by blind voters claiming Ohio’s paper absentee ballots illegally force them to rely on others to vote.
The Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by the lower U.S. District Court in Columbus that found in favor of Mr. Husted. The lower court found the remedies proposed by blind plaintiffs would have fundamentally changed Ohio’s voting system.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit, all appointed by Republican presidents, found the lower court should not have simply accepted the secretary of state’s arguments on the matter. It sent the case back for further proceedings.
“Without proof that the proposed [Americans with Disabilities Act] accommodation is unreasonable or incompatible with Ohio’s election system, defendant’s defense based on an allegation alone is insufficient,” Judge Richard Allen Griffin wrote.
The plaintiffs had suggested a system similar to that in Maryland and Oregon. Blind voters may receive and fill out absentee ballots via the Internet or other electronic means. Ballots, however, still have to be printed out and mailed in order to be counted, according to Jessica P. Weber, Baltimore attorney for The National Federation of the Blind, a plaintiff in the case.
Mr. Husted’s office contended this would fly in the face of Ohio’s system in which all voting machines and related materials must be examined and approved by a bipartisan board of voting machine examiners.
“This involves the fundamental right to vote, probably the most important right any citizen can have,” Ms. Weber said. “Blind people should have the same opportunity to vote privately and independently as the state affords all other citizens, whether it’s in person or absentee mail-in ballot.
“Now that the technology exists…, the state needs to affirmatively make that technology available and not use the fact that it has not gone through a state certification process as an excuse,” she said.
The lower court, however, could take the state’s certification requirement into consideration when it weighs the facts of the case instead of issuing summary judgment for the state, the 6th Circuit found.
“Secretary Husted and Ohio’s elections officials have worked to ensure that all Ohioans — regardless of their physical abilities — are able to vote in an accessible and secure way,” Husted spokesman Sam Rossi said. “We want to make accommodations for voters with disabilities that need additional assistance.
“However, previous rulings have made clear that one group of voters cannot receive special accommodations to cast a ballot that aren’t available to others,” he said. “The court must provide clarity on how we accommodate voters who need additional services without jeopardizing the current process for all other voters.”
Judge Griffen was joined in the ruling by Senior Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich and Judge Raymond M. Kethledge.
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