Voting rights advocates ask federal judge to toss Ohio voting restrictions they say violate ADA

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Voting rights advocates asked a federal judge on Friday to strike down restrictions contained in Ohio's sweeping 2023 election law that they say restrict a host of trusted individuals from helping voters with disabilities cast absentee ballots.

The motion for summary judgment came in a lawsuit filed in December under the Americans with Disabilities Act by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and voter Jennifer Kucera, who was born with a form of muscular dystrophy, against Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Ohio, American Civil Liberties Union and law firm of Covington & Burling.

The filing in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland argues that the law prohibits all but a short list of qualifying family members from helping those with disabilities deliver their ballots, excluding potential helpers such as professional caregivers, roommates, in-laws and grandchildren.

“These arbitrary restrictions that burden the right to vote of Ohioans with disabilities are undemocratic, cruel, and in violation of several federal laws including the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act," Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said in a statement. "Yet the state insists, and has been fighting hard, to maintain this unlawful burden. We’re hopeful that the federal court will soon rule to remedy this disgrace.”

The law, which went into effect in April 2023, makes it a felony for anyone who isn’t an election official or mail carrier to possess or return the absentee ballot of a voter with a disability, unless the person assisting them falls within a prescribed list of close relatives.

Republicans who advanced the law argued that its provisions were designed to protect election integrity and restore voter confidence at a time of great doubt.

Voting rights advocates say many voters with disabilities are unable to travel to their polling place and many are unable to access their mailbox or ballot dropbox.

Kucera said Ohio's absentee, or mail-in, voting program is not designed for people with mobility disabilities like hers.

“This lawsuit is fighting back against a society that for most of history has tried to crush the voices, thoughts, and spirits of its disabled inhabitants,” she said in a statement. ”All I’ve ever wanted is just to be given the same chances that non-disabled people are offered.” Nearly 28% of adults in Ohio have a disability.

Jen Miller, executive director for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, called the restrictions unreasonable. Her organization argues that Ohio has not provided evidence that allowing voters with disabilities to choose someone outside the state's list to help them vote would fundamentally alter Ohio's absentee voting program.

“Making it a felony to help your grandparent or roommate exercise their right to vote is fundamentally wrong,” she said in a statement.