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Ohio sued over election law passed ‘in the dark of night’

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and others call a new statewide photo ID requirement an "all-sides attack on the voting process" that will drastically reduce turnout among young, elderly, minority and military voters alike.

CLEVELAND (CN) — The Ohio Legislature abused its lame duck session and eschewed public input to radically transform a special elections scheduling law into a complete overhaul of the state's voting process, according to a lawsuit filed late Friday night by several nonprofit organizations and labor unions.

Despite being touted as "the gold standard" in election security by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, named as the sole defendant in the federal lawsuit, Republican lawmakers sought to change the state's voting process after the 2020 election cycle, the complaint states.

"The next year, Ohio legislators leveraged false allegations of widespread election fraud to justify proposing wide-ranging legislation meant to limit access to the ballot," the groups claim. "After that initial effort stalled, they resurrected these policies in the last moments of the most recent legislative session by transforming a modest 15-page bill altering the schedule of special elections into a sweeping 147-page overhaul of nearly every aspect of Ohio's electoral system.

"Then they rushed the bill through the Legislature with almost no time for public input, ultimately passing it literally in the dark of night."

House Bill 458 was signed by newly reelected Republican Governor Mike DeWine on Friday, and the lawsuit was filed hours later in Cleveland federal court by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Ohio Federation of Teachers, Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans and Union Veterans Council.

Paramount among the items included in the bill is a photo ID requirement that no longer allows Ohioans to use bank statements, utility bills or paychecks as forms of identification at polling locations.

The complaint calls the provision "one of the most stringent photo-identification requirements in the country" despite the fact that between 2019 and 2022, not a single individual was referred by LaRose to the Ohio attorney general for in-person election fraud.

According to the groups, young and old voters alike will be affected by the requirement, especially considering student IDs are excluded from the acceptable forms of identification, but the impact on Black voters will be "particularly devastating," given that a 2012 poll estimated nearly one in four Black adults in the state lack a government-issued ID.

HB 458 includes a provision that allows every Ohioan to obtain a free, government-issued ID card, but the complaint says many minorities and the elderly lack either the transportation to travel to a government office or the official documents necessary to obtain the ID.

Absentee voting will also be affected by the new law, as deadlines for the submission of both applications and ballots themselves will be moved up.

"The trap laid by the mail-ballot restrictions' advancement of the application deadline," the lawsuit states, "will ensnare not only new mail voters, but also longtime mail voters, who for years have been able to submit a mail-ballot application as late as three days prior to election day."

When combined with the voter ID requirement, the groups claim the deadline changes render the bill unconstitutional.

"Individually, each of the challenged provisions make voting more difficult for broad swaths of eligible voters – particularly young, elderly, and Black voters, as well as members of the military and others living abroad," the complaint states. "Together, they are an all-sides attack on the voting process, making it substantially harder to vote in person and by mail, while at the same time making it more difficult for voters to correct any mistakes made in the process."

The lawsuit accuses Republican state lawmakers, as well as DeWine and LaRose, of ignoring statistics that show voter fraud is nearly nonexistent in the Buckeye State.

"The challenged provisions are a solution in search of a problem," the groups claim. "No one seriously disputes that Ohio's elections are secure. Secretary LaRose has repeatedly celebrated the state's election system as the gold standard in America and made clear that fraud is exceedingly rare."

While public comment before its passage was extremely limited, according to the complaint, every response during a Senate committee hearing was opposed to the law.

"Indeed," the complaint states, "it appears in the period after the Senate committee transformed HB 458 into the suppressive voting law that was enacted, just one member of the public offered written testimony in favor of its passage."

The groups seek an injunction to prevent enforcement of the bill and claim it violates the First and 14th Amendments by imposing severe burdens on Ohioans' right to vote.

LaRose's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.

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