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No Library Ballot Collection For Cuyahoga County, But Parking Lot Plan A Go

The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections is collecting voted absentee ballots at a dropbox in its parking lot. Starting Oct. 13, the board plans to receive ballots down the street at a second location. [ideastream]
The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections is collecting voted absentee ballots at a dropbox in its parking lot. Starting Oct. 13, the board plans to receive ballots down the street at a second location.

Updated: 11:50 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020

The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections will not collect completed ballots at local libraries this fall, despite a federal judge’s ruling this week that seemed to allow it, a board member told ideastream Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster interpreted a recent state election directive more broadly than Secretary of State Frank LaRose intended, Democratic board member Inajo Davis Chappell said.

“The Secretary of State’s Office has made clear that that was not intended,” Chappell said. “We are not to implement the public library portion of our plan, so we’re hoping voters do not go there. I wish they could, but they cannot.”

However, bipartisan election staff will collect voted ballots in the parking lot of Campus International High School beginning Oct. 13, she said.

In dismissing a lawsuit that sought multiple ballot drop boxes across Ohio counties, Polster wrote Tuesday that boards may collect ballots off site, as the county board had planned to do.

But in the wake of that decision, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office clarified to board members that the directive was not meant to allow off-site ballot collection, Chappell said.

“When we received the order from Judge Polster, it was confusing to us,” she said. “We were happily confused, because we thought we could implement our public library solution, but it didn’t seem to square with the directive, 2020-22, and so we actually requested clarification.”

LaRose issued that directive to county election boards on Monday. It allowed multiple drop boxes, but only at the boards’ headquarters themselves. The directive also permitted election staff to collect ballots “outside the office of the board of elections.”

But in an order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster offered a different interpretation of the word “outside,” writing that LaRose’s directive allowed county election officials to collect ballots at sites farther afield than board offices.

“In his latest Directive, the Secretary authorized any board to deploy its staff to receive ballots at sites other than the board office,” Polster wrote. “This means that the Cuyahoga County board may implement its intended plan to receive ballots at six public libraries, and that any other board in Ohio that votes to do so may deploy its staff to receive ballots off-site.”

Polster also wrote that Ohio law neither required off-site drop boxes nor banned them.

“Ohioans showed up for today’s start of early voting in impressive numbers,” LaRose spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan wrote in a text message to ideastream. “Combined with a record number of absentee ballot requests, it’s clear that Ohioans are ready to move past lawsuits and start taking advantage of the elections system that has made Ohio a national leader in early voting and a model for election administration.”

Last month,  LaRose’s office halted the county’s plans to collect ballots at six local libraries and in the parking lot of the nearby Campus International High School. Last week,  the secretary of permitted the county to receive voted ballots in the high school’s lot – about a block away from the board of elections office.

Cuyahoga County board of elections staff will be allowed to accept completed ballots in the parking lot of Campus International High School near East 30th Street and Chester Avenue. [ideastream]

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in litigation,  wrote in a Monday court filing that LaRose’s directive allows Cuyahoga County’s school parking lot plan and “permits any Ohio board of elections to adopt a similar plan.”

“Nothing in Ohio law requires the Secretary to permit one county to provide more voting opportunities than are available in any other county,” the state’s court filing reads. “Further, nothing in Ohio law requires the Secretary to allow one Board to create out of whole cloth an entirely new off-site voting procedure for which there is no statutory basis.”

The state also argued Cuyahoga County’s ballot collection plans were not at issue in the federal lawsuit, which challenged statewide limitations on drop boxes.

The A. Philip Randolph Institute and other voting organizations sued LaRose in federal court in August. An attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is part of the plaintiffs’ legal team, declined to comment on Tuesday.

Some 1,700 voters cast ballots in person at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Tuesday, forming a line that snaked around the building and north toward Chester Avenue. Board staff are working to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and people arriving to vote should prepare for lines, Chappell said.

“But we will move people through as quickly and as safely as we can,” she said. “So we just want everybody to vote and be confident that the process is not rigged, that the process is fair and we are doing our jobs.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.