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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Biased Impact of Ohio Voting Laws Condemned

CINCINNATI (CN) — Seven judges blasted their Sixth Circuit colleagues for not granting an en banc rehearing in a case that says Ohio laws disenfranchise black and homeless voters.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. in particular scolded the majority for "repeatedly turn[ing] a blind eye to well-supported factual findings in this case."

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) is the lead plaintiff in the case at hand, which complains about requirements in a law known as Senate Bill 205. The law says citizens who vote by absentee or provisional ballot must fill out five identification "fields," including name and address, but homeless and minority voters say the demand for perfect matches is discriminatory.

Though a federal judge in Columbus struck down the law as unconstitutional, a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit last month reversed the finding that Ohio's law has a disparate impact on minority voters.

The Sixth Circuit refused to rehear the case en banc last week, but filed the ruling as unpublished, meaning it could not be used as precedent.

That order reappeared Thursday, however, newly designated by the court for full-text publication.

Five judges joined Cole's dissent, which takes the majority to task for ignoring evidence from a 12-day bench trial that included testimony from numerous lay and expert witnesses on the constitutionality of Senate Bills 205 and 216.

"The district court found that African-American voters have been more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected, and that NEOCH members, the majority of whom are African-American, have had difficulty completing their envelopes," Cole wrote. "Moreover, the court's undergirding for the factual findings is itself unrefuted and supported by the evidence."

NEOCH also deserved credit, according to the dissent, for its claim that Ohio's laws violated the equal-protection clause by limiting the amount of assistance with which poll workers can provide voters.

"Since the laws took effect, homeless voters suffering from a host of physical and mental health problems have been more likely to incorrectly fill out forms due to the lack of help, and many NEOCH members are too embarrassed to ask for help given their severe problems," the 9-page dissent states.

Cole objected to the majority's finding that the laws are appropriate given the state's "legitimate interest in minimizing" mistakes by poll-workers."

"The majority's error means accepting 'minimizing mistakes by poll-workers' as a legitimate basis for the limits on their assistance where the historic function of such workers has been to ensure that the electoral process works," Cole wrote. "Indeed, the district court's factual findings confirm that poll-worker assistance leads to more complete and accurate information from voters. To this extent, the limits seem to be a solution in search of a problem."

In addition to joining Cole's dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald wrote her own, which Cole joined.

The 4-page opinion makes repeated mention of a dissent by U.S. Judge Damon Keith in the original decision.

"By inexplicably considering only whether these new voting laws placed a burden on all Ohio voters, and utterly disregarding the district court's factual findings that minority voters' ballots were rejected more often than those of white voters, the majority opinion carries on this practice of denying disadvantaged groups the right to vote and halts the progress made for decades to preserve this core right," Donald wrote. "I dissent from the denial of en banc rehearing in this case because, like Judge Keith, 'I will not forget. I cannot forget — indeed America cannot forget — the pain, suffering, and sorrow of those who died for equal protection and for this precious right to vote.'"

The case at hand is just one piece of a sprawling jigsaw of litigation over Ohio's voting laws as Election Day approaches.

On the same day that the original panel handed down its partial reversal in this case, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay an August ruling that upheld Ohio's elimination of its "Golden Week" of early voting.

The Sixth Circuit did rule against the state in yet another voting case late last month, saying Ohio's "supplemental process" for purging voters from registration rolls violates the National Voter Registration Act.

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless was a plaintiff in that case as well, joined by the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

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