Ohio Judge Rules In Favor of Late-Jailed Voters

November 8, 2019 by Dan McCue
A voting station. (Photo by Dan McCue)

A federal judge in Ohio ruled the state must discontinue its practice of disenfranchising eligible voters who are arrested and held in pre-trial detention in the final days leading up to an election.

The case has its roots in the 2018 midterm election. Just days before the vote, Tommy Mays and Quinton Nelson were arrested in separate instances.

According to the U.S. District Judge Michael Watson’s opinion, Mays, who was arrested on Nov. 3, three days before the election, asked how he could exercise his right to vote while in jail and no one could tell him.

Both Mays and Nelson, who was arrested on Nov. 2, filed an emergency petition on Election Day asking the court to allow them to vote.

The court found in their favor and ordered that absentee ballots be brought to them.

While the case addressed the specific concerns of Mays and Nelson, voting rights advocates said it failed to do anything about the state’s practices related to voting and recent jailed suspects.

The lawsuit then morphed into a class action suit, representing all Ohioans denied the right to vote while in pre-trial detention.

“Eligible voters who are arrested and detained pre-trial by the state in the days leading up to an election deserve equal protection from the U.S. Constitution,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel, voting rights at Campaign Legal Center, which advanced the class action.

“A person’s ability to cast a ballot should not be determined by the date of their arrest or their ability to pay bail. Secretary of State Frank LaRose should ensure that all of Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections are prepared to assist all eligible voters who are arrested and held in pretrial detention prior to Election Day to ensure that they can cast a ballot.”

In his ruling, Watson said, “Ohio law does not disenfranchise someone until they are convicted of a felony, which is why the election scheme provides confined pretrial detainees and those convicted of a misdemeanor the opportunity to submit a request for an absentee ballot.”

The decision means all detainees in pre-trial holding can now receive an absentee ballot.

“A person does not lose the right to vote simply by being arrested, and the Court’s decision recognizes that a voter in jail receives the same protections as every other voter, and must be treated just like any other voter,” said Laura Bishop, voting rights project attorney at MacArthur Justice Center.

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