By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS: Voter advocates asked a federal judge Friday to extend a court order they say ensures that broad definitions of voter identification requirements would remain in place in the perennial presidential battleground of Ohio.
Though attorneys for the state’s top election official said he’s committed to the more lenient voter ID definitions, unless the Legislature changes the law.
At issue is whether a 2010 expiring court agreement that governs provisional ballots and forms of voter ID in Ohio should continue.
An attorney representing homeless voters told the federal court in Columbus that without the decree, the state would return to a “Wild West” system in which county election boards could apply vague standards unequally and unfairly to legitimate voters.
Cleveland attorney Subodh Chandra told U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley that his clients would like the decree to continue indefinitely, or at least until 2021, which could allow state legislators to put into law the broad ID definitions.
Since the decree was issued, Chandra told the court, “the General Assembly has simply failed to do so.”
The debate over the federal court agreement dates to 2006, when a state law laid out the requirements for when provisional ballots are counted, starting with voters who have only the last four digits of a Social Security number as identification.
A 2006 lawsuit by advocates for homeless voters challenged the state law, and in 2010 then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, entered into a federal consent decree that was more open when it comes to provisional ballots and identification requirements.
For instance, the court order incorporates a directive from Brunner that allows letters from public universities to serve as government documents for voting purposes. It also defines “current” as a document issued within a year immediately preceding the date of the election in which the voters seeks to vote.
Brunner’s directive remains enforced and in place despite the court agreement, said Richard Coglianese, an assistant attorney general who argued on behalf of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
He said there was no reason for the order to remain because Husted, a Republican, would keep the broad definitions.
Plus, Coglianese said, there’s been no evidence showing that a single Ohioan would be denied the right to vote by letting the decree expire.
“Ohio law is enfranchising,” he said.
Chandra said in an interview after the hearing that Husted himself hasn’t issued sworn testimony or provided evidence to show he would uphold the definitions.
“That’s empty rhetoric too late,” Chandra said. “We don’t believe a word of it.”
A Husted spokesman took issue with Chandra’s remarks.
“It’s misleading and irresponsible to claim that Secretary Husted is not committed to keeping the voting process easy and accessible for all Ohioans,” said Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the secretary of state, in an email.
Chandra has argued in court filings that unless the order is extended, homeless and poor voters who lack identification other than the last four digits of their Social Security numbers will be denied the chance to vote and will have to pay the equivalent of a “poll tax” to cast a ballot because they would have to pay for proper identification.
Attorneys for the state have said that the advocates’ “strained” reading of the law is incorrect.
“Ohio law mandates that any otherwise eligible voter who fails to present ID is permitted to cast a provisional ballot using the last four digits of his or her [Social Security number],” they wrote in court filings.
Marbley told the parties that he expected to make a decision in 10 to 14 days.