Court nixes Ohio ballot applications arriving by fax, email

Published 12:43 am Saturday, October 3, 2020

COLUMBUS (AP) — Requesting an absentee ballot by fax or email remains off limits in Ohio following a court decision that delivered a victory to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and fellow Republicans in a critical battleground state.

A three-judge panel of Ohio’s 10th District Court of Appeals ruled late Tuesday that a trial judge’s order requiring Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose to allow the applications by fax or email could burden county election boards and pose a security risk to the fall presidential election.

The court made its decision “because of the unrebutted, compelling evidence of harm to third parties and the great public interest in preserving the security of Ohio’s 2020 general election.”
The decision returns the case, brought by the Ohio Democratic Party and voting rights groups, to Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Stephen McIntosh’s court, where a trial could proceed. An appeal is also possible.

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The appellate court said Democrats showed only that Ohio election law allows electronic submissions, not that they must be required.

In a statement, Democratic Chairman David Pepper said that confirmed the party’s contention “all along” that LaRose is free to allow electronic submissions if he wants to.

“For two years now, it’s been Frank LaRose himself, not Ohio law, prohibiting this easy way for voters to ask for absentee ballots,” he said. “Yesterday’s decision shows he’s been wrong the entire time. He can now finally stop pretending the law is an obstacle here and start doing what so many other states have been doing without problems.”

With less than five weeks until Election Day, the decision was a win for the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and other GOP committees that had joined LaRose’s side in the lawsuit.

A group of computer science and engineering experts from top U.S. universities sided with Democrats, saying it was possible to accept applications by email while protecting against outside interference.

LaRose’s spokeswoman, Maggie Sheehan, said the office appreciated the court siding with its argument that cybersecurity concerns were too great to make changes to the ballot request process so close to the election.

“Ohioans are showing incredible confidence in how we’re running this election by requesting absentee ballots at a record pace,” she said in a statement. “Our mission is to reward that confidence by running a safe, secure and accessible election.”

Ohio voters must submit an absentee ballot application by noon Oct. 31. The date falls too close to the election to guarantee that a voter will be able to receive and return a ballot by the deadline, so LaRose has joined the U.S. Postal Service in urging Ohioans to submit their applications no later than Oct. 27, leaving a full week for election boards to receive the request, mail a ballot and get it back.

Despite strong lobbying by LaRose, Ohio still lacks an online ballot request system, opting instead to mail paper absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. Based on Tuesday’s decision, county election boards must continue to comply with a LaRose directive that says they can only accept completed applications by mail or in person.

Democrats had argued that, if LaRose supported an online ballot request system, he should also support ballot applications being received by fax or email. But LaRose said they are two very different things, because email and fax systems don’t boast the same cybersecurity protections as an online application portal would allow.