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Two suits target Ohio voting procedures ahead of 2020 election

COLUMBUS (AP) — Voting rights groups and Democrats filed separate lawsuits in Ohio on Friday aimed at making voting easier in the battleground state this November amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued on behalf of voting rights groups and an individual, arguing that Ohio has an unconstitutional signature-matching requirement for ballots applications and ballots.

The parties, including the Ohio chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the League of Women Voters, contend the process carried out by election workers untrained in handwriting analysis disenfranchises thousands of eligible voters.

“Especially during a global pandemic, Ohio voters must be able to efficiently secure absentee ballots and have assurance that their votes will count,” Jen Miller, the Ohio league’s executive director, said in a statement.

The litigation cites a December review by The Associated Press that found thousands of ballot applications across the state were held up or denied ahead of the 2018 general election because of missing or mismatched signatures.

The Ohio Democratic Party’s lawsuit, also filed Friday, seeks to compel Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose to allow voters to apply for absentee ballots by electronic means, including by fax or email.

LaRose has said he advocates an online application process, as is in place in 22 states and the District of Columbia — but that he needs fellow Republicans in the Legislature to give him the authority. Democrats argue in their lawsuit that existing Ohio law already gives LaRose the power to make the switch.

State Democratic Chairman David Pepper said in a conference call with reporters Friday that he hopes LaRose will support, rather than fight, the suit — which is technically filed against him as elections chief.

“This way we can do it immediately, as opposed to waiting for this very dysfunctional and, I’d say, broken Legislature to somehow find religion in the coming months that they’ve never found,” he said. The speaker of the Ohio House was arrested in a federal bribery probe last week.

Representatives removed and replaced him Thursday.

LaRose has long said that online ballot applications would eliminate hurdles for voters, which include the signature-matching requirements targeted in the voting-rights groups’ lawsuit.

Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, said addressing the system she calls “incredibly subjective and fraught with error” is crucial this year, as records numbers of Ohioans prepare to vote by mail because of the pandemic.