In the latest legal wrangling over Ohio's ballot drop boxes, a federal judge in Cleveland has temporarily blocked Secretary of State Frank LaRose's directive limiting the receptacles to one location within a county. But LaRose moved immediately to appeal.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster said in a ruling issued Thursday night that the pandemic is putting greater strain on the mail system and increasing the demand for remote voting options. He says LaRose’s directive allowing drop boxes only on board of elections properties is unfair, particularly in larger counties.
And he says LaRose hasn’t presented evidence to show multiple drop boxes would pose a security risk.
"We are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century coupled with reasonable concern over the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle what will undoubtedly be the largest number of absentee voters in Ohio's history," Polster wrote. "The Secretary has not advanced any legitimate reason to prohibit a county board of elections from utilizing off-site drop boxes and/or off-site delivery of ballots to staff."
At the beginning of the month, LaRose approved the Cuyahoga County Board of Election's plan to collect ballots at a secondary location in a high school parking lot, a block north and across the street from the board’s headquarters. But he blocked another proposal for six ballot drop-off sites at libraries across the county, which would have been staffed by bipartisan election officials.
Polster pointed to the lack of consistency in LaRose's directives.
“If ‘outside the office of the board of elections’ means only outside on the board’s premises, then it doesn’t permit collection one block away and across the street,” Polster wrote. “It appears the Secretary has arbitrarily drawn the ‘outside’ boundary somewhere beyond a board’s premises but not as far as a library a few miles away.”
Polster's ruling allows Cuyahoga County to set up those staffed ballot collection spots, and other counties could do the same.
However, the issue is far from settled, as the Secretary of State's Office filed a notice of appeal with the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
“Voting has begun, and Ohio’s elections are safe, secure, and accessible," Secretary of State spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said in a statement. "The place to make changes in how we run our elections is the Statehouse, not the courthouse. Yes, we will appeal.”
The case originated from a lawsuit filed by the A. Philip Randolph Institute and other voting rights groups. Polster initially dismissed the case earlier this week, but reopened it after incorrectly interpreting LaRose's directive.
LaRose previously said he supported expanding the number of ballot boxes, but believed that power lays only with the state legislature. However, multiple courts have now said otherwise, including the 10th District Court of Appeals, which ruled that Ohio law allowed but does not require the Secretary of State to permit more than one ballot drop box in each county.
Despite that finding, LaRose doubled down on his position in an updated directive to election officials. He told counties that "secure receptacles must be located only outside the board of elections," but added that bipartisan election officials could personally collect absentee ballots from voters outside the election board building.
"It has been clear throughout this litigation that the main rationale behind that prohibition was the Secretary’s now-rejected interpretation of Ohio law," Polster wrote Thursday. "He believed Ohio law limited personal delivery to board premises; the Ohio Court of Appeals said there is no such limitation. The Secretary is continuing to restrict boards from implementing off-site collection, and he appears to be doing so in an arbitrary manner."
Voting advocates celebrated the ruling, saying that LaRose's directives disprortionately hurt voters in rural areas or who lack transportation.
“This evening the District Court entered an order requiring the Secretary of State to permit boards of elections to install drop boxes in multiple locations," said Freda Levenson, ACLU Ohio legal director, in a statement Thursday. "But rather than accept legal guidance—guidance he had long claimed he would abide by—the Secretary immediately appealed. We will fight to uphold the court’s decision and secure the right of Ohioans to vote without having to jeopardize their health or the health of their loved ones.”
Early voting began in Ohio on Tuesday. Voters can request absentee ballots through October 31, and drop them off at a secure ballot drop box until 7:30 p.m. on November 3.