COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge has ruled that Ohio must allow groups pursuing voting law changes, a minimum wage increase, and marijuana decriminalization more time and flexibility to qualify for ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
US District Court Judge Edmund Sargus Jr.'s ruling Tuesday ordered the state to allow campaigns until July 31 to gather required signatures and to allow them to be collected electronically. He stopped short of reducing the number of signatures required, as some courts elsewhere have allowed amid a spate of COVID-19-related signature-gathering challenges.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s elections chief, says the state will appeal.
The decision is an immediate victory for Ohioans for Safe and Secure Elections, which is proposing a package of changes aimed at making it easier for Ohioans to vote, and for Ohioans for Raising the Wage, whose initiative would raise the state minimum wage from $8.70 to $13 over five years.
Both have already qualified for the November ballot and were beginning to collect the more than 440,000 signatures required when the new coronavirus hit in March.
Backers of two marijuana decriminalization proposals are hoping to place their decriminalization measures on more than a dozen town and village ballots across the state. The group failed to gather the 1,000 valid signatures necessary to launch its campaign statewide, missing the mark by more than 800 signatures on March 23.
Sargus said he might have agreed, under ordinary conditions, with the arguments of Governor Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, both Republicans, that Ohio’s signature requirements are an appropriate qualifier for ballot access.
"These times, however, are not ordinary,” he wrote.
“Plaintiffs do not argue that Ohio’s signature requirements are facially unconstitutional," he wrote. “Plaintiffs instead contend that they are unconstitutional as applied to them during this extraordinary time. That is, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to circulate petitions in person.”
LaRose's spokeswoman said Sargus' ruling allows the ballot campaigns to “ignore the Ohio Constitution,” which sets the signature requirements. Both the Ohio Supreme Court and a state court had declined requests to waive them.
“Let me be clear, the petition requirements set in the Ohio Constitution and decisions on changing them belong to the General Assembly and the people," spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said in an e-mailed statement. “Our office has already informed Attorney General Yost that we intend to appeal the ruling.”
Toni Webb, campaign manager for Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections, said even this court victory may not be enough to help the effort succeed. Already, the group lost time having to fight a Ballot Board decision that split its package of changes into four, a clash it ultimately won in court.
“The court made the correct decision in recognizing that, in these unique and extreme circumstances, adjustments to ballot access requirements must be made, both to protect public health and our democracy," Webb said in a statement. “It is disappointing, however, that the court did not fully recognize the difficulty of meeting the numerical signature requirement in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”