Ohio seeks appeal of suspended voter ID law
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Overruling the state's top elections official, state attorneys started the process today to appeal a judge's order suspending Ohio's new voter identification law as it applies to absentee voting.
U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley granted a temporary order Thursday on behalf of labor and poverty groups that sued earlier in the week.
The ruling is in effect until Wednesday, when the judge will consider arguments from the same groups seeking to block application of the identification law for voters who go to the polls Nov. 7.
Attorney General Jim Petro filed a notice planning an appeal on behalf of Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who was named in the lawsuit. But Blackwell's office said today it did not want to get involved.
Blackwell's office told Petro officials if they appealed they would not be representing the secretary of state, said Blackwell spokesman James Lee.
"We have an election to administer and have no interest in getting caught up in endless litigation," Lee said today.
"The General Assembly passed ID requirements and we enforced those," he said. "Now, a federal judge is saying something different with regard to ID for absentee ballots and so we will enforce that."
Judge Marbley had scheduled a meeting this morning for attorneys in the case to discuss the apparent contradiction, said Subodh Chandra, a Cleveland attorney representing Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless who brought the suit.
The state is asking Judge Marbley to allow the attorney general's office to join the case to press an appeal, said Mark Anthony, spokesman for Petro.
"What we're trying to do is protect the right to vote, make sure no voter is disenfranchised and defend the lawfully enacted provisions of state law," Anthony said.
It's unclear how many absentee ballots have been cast since early voting began Oct. 3, said James Lee, spokesman for Ohio secretary of state's office, which supervises Ohio's elections. None of the absentee ballots were scheduled to be counted before Election Day, and none will be disqualified based on the new law, given the judge's ruling, he said.
Under the new law, an absentee voter must submit a written application that includes a driver's license number, the last four digits of the voter's Social Security number or a copy of a current photo ID, military identification, utility bill or bank statement.
Ohio, where a slim victory gave President Bush the electoral votes he needed for re-election in 2004, has a tight U.S. Senate race and a closely watched campaign for governor in which Blackwell is trailing Democratic Ted Strickland in recent polls.
Lawyers who filed the lawsuit said the law requiring voters to produce identification when they cast ballots is causing widespread confusion across the state.
County boards of elections are using different requirements for acceptable identification, such as military identification, driver's licenses and Social Security cards, Chandra said.
Other forms of valid IDs can include current utility bills, bank statements and government checks, but the law doesn't define what "current" is, Chandra said.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, will accept utility bills from the current month but nothing older, and Mahoning County in Northeast Ohio has no policy on what is acceptable, he said.
Judge Marbley blamed vague language in the statute for the problems. The judge said inconsistent interpretations of the law violate voters' constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
He also criticized a directive issued earlier Thursday from Blackwell's office attempting to clarify some of the issues. For example, the directive advised counties that a utility bill or other identification document issued within six months can be considered "current."
But Judge Marbley said Blackwell's office failed to explain the basis for the six-month standard. It's not written in the law, he said.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Cleveland struck down another new Ohio voting rule that required naturalized citizens to provide proof of citizenship if challenged by a poll worker.