Ohio rule requiring ballot signatures to be verified upheld by federal judge

A federal judge noted that changes to procedure at this stage could be 'particularly damaging' to the election process

An Ohio mandate requiring that signatures on absentee ballots be verified should remain in place for the upcoming election despite a legal challenge from voting rights advocates, a federal judge said Sunday.

U.S. District Judge Michael Watson sided with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, who had argued the policy of matching signatures on ballot applications to signatures on ballots was essential to the integrity of the state’s elections. In his decision rejecting a preliminary injunction on the requirement, the judge noted that changes to the procedure at this stage could be “particularly damaging” to the election process.

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“Some public officials have unfortunately regularly cast doubt on the security and legitimacy of voting by mail,” Watson wrote in his rejection of a preliminary injunction. “A federal court enjoining part of the State’s procedure for maintaining the security of mail-in voting in the weeks leading up to the election could further undermine public confidence in elections.”

The security of mail-in ballots has emerged as a key source of debate during the 2020 presidential election cycle. President Trump has sharply criticized Democratic leaders in some states for sending unsolicited ballot applications to voters and made unsubstantiated claims that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud.

In Ohio, voters must submit a signed application in order to receive an absentee ballot.

Voting advocacy groups, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio, challenged that the signature verification requirement was unconstitutional. Critics argue the signature matching process is subjective and could disenfranchise eligible voters within the state.

“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we do agree with the judge’s finding that Ohio’s signature matching protocols are burdensome on voters, but we will continue to work for more uniform and less subjective practices across all 88 counties,” Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said in a statement.

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Ohio election officials have reported a surge in absentee ballot applications during the coronavirus pandemic. LaRose’s office said nearly 1.8 million Ohioans had requested absentee ballots as of last week, an increase of about one million compared to the same time during the 2016 presidential race.

“Ohioans know that election accessibility and security are not mutually exclusive. We’re pleased Judge Watson recognized that as well,” a spokesperson for LaRose said in a statement on the judge’s ruling, according to Cleveland.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.