How do I know if my vote is being obstructed in Ohio?

Protect your rights by understanding common ways your vote can be denied

The right to vote is one of the nation’s most important civil rights. But there are times when certain people are prevented from voting or see their votes uncounted. In some cases, voters won’t even be aware that it’s happening.

“Unfortunately, you usually don’t [know] until it’s too late,” says Subodh Chandra, a civil rights attorney in Cleveland. “It might be that you go to the poll or you seek an absentee ballot, and you’re told that they’re not going to give you one for reasons that may or may not be legitimate. But it may be that you go to the poll and are forced to cast a provisional ballot, and the chances that the provisional ballots are going to be counted are obviously less than the chances that a regular ballot is going to be counted.”

Ultimately, a voter can’t know for sure if their vote was counted or not unless they check with their county’s Board of Elections–after the election is over. “You may find out after the fact. You might be given notice and an opportunity to cure, but it’s so short that you can’t conceivably fix the problem,” Chandra says.

Understand How Votes Have Been Suppressed

One way to try to protect your rights is to be aware of potential problems ahead of time. “I think it is important for people to be alert to the different types of schemes that have already existed,” Chandra says. “And do they come up with new ones all the time? Yes, they come up with new ones all the time. And they’re very subtle.”

In Ohio, there have been a few major ways in which votes have already been suppressed. “The first are these massive voting purges where people who the Secretary of State arbitrarily deems not to have voted frequently enough are being thrown off the [voting] rolls and then they show up to try to vote and they’re told, ‘You’re not on the roll anymore,’ and there’s literally nothing you can do about it at that point,” Chandra says. Since Ohio does not allow same-day registration, voters can find themselves turned away at the polls.

Ohio voters should be aware of registration deadlines for their best chance of avoiding this method of voter suppression. Registrations must be submitted or updated no less than 30 days prior to the election.

Another effort involves what is called the “perfect form requirement,” which allows ballot forms to be rejected for the smallest mistakes. In a 2016 case, “[the court] essentially rubber-stamped the state’s scheme of discarding votes where there are trivial errors on the five fields for applications for provisional ballots, but not where there were absentee ballots,” Chandra says.

However, votes may be more likely to be counted in certain areas. “We have evidence that, depending on where you live in Ohio, your vote may be more likely to be counted in a rural, mostly white county than it is in one of the larger urban counties, because more stringent–indeed, draconian–standards are being used to decide whether to count votes in the larger urban counties,” Chandra explains. “… So you wrote ‘WM.’ rather than ‘William’ on the form; boom, your vote was discarded. You transposed a couple digits; the signature matches, they know who you are, you’ve given a copy of your ID, but no. ‘There was an error on the form, we’re disenfranchising you.’”

The third way in which votes have been suppressed in Ohio involves “playing games with polling places where poll workers–who are government workers for the day–the volunteers wind up misdirecting people to the wrong polling place or the wrong polling location within a polling place,” Chandra says. “Sometimes those votes are counted. Sometimes, they’re not counted.” The misdirection could be as slight as directing someone to the wrong table, he adds.

These and other barriers to voting affect some more than others. “Every single one of their schemes disproportionately affects poor, minority, urban voters,” Chandra says.

Taking Action is Difficult, but Not Impossible

Voters can sue over voter suppression, but their own personal account won’t be enough. The U.S. Supreme Court, through two cases, established the Anderson-Burdick test, “which is a test that requires you to show how heavily this burden is affecting not just you, but others,” Chandra explains.

Laws or practices that negatively impact a large number of voters are more likely to be considered a “severe burden” and claims that can prove that multiple people were affected are more likely to be successful. An individual claim, however, won’t be enough to force the government to take action.

“So there’s really very little a person can do other than talk to the voting rights advocates and election monitors so that they can determine whether it’s part of a trend,” Chandra says. “And if it’s part of a trend, then perhaps successful litigation can be brought.”

Another barrier to litigation is another Supreme Court determination that “any efforts to try to correct these kinds of abuses that are too close to the election will be disregarded, almost as if they’re interference with the election,” Chandra says, “which then incentivizes those who are implementing these schemes to lie in wait and wait until the last minute.”

The best way to fight back against voter suppression is with the help of an experienced civil rights attorney who can help navigate Ohio’s voting laws and determine if your case can be brought to court. For more information on this area of law, see our civil rights overview.

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