Ohio blocked 6,500 people from even requesting absentee ballots in 2018

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Localities rejected thousands of requests for absentee ballots because of missing or dissimilar-looking signatures.

Thousands of Ohio voters were obstructed or outright blocked in their efforts to obtain absentee ballots in last year's general election because of the state's signature matching requirements, the Associated Press reported Monday.

According to the AP report, 21 of the 88 county boards of elections rejected more than 6,500 absentee ballot requests based on the voter's signature being either missing or not matching their signature on file. Another five counties said they rejected total applications for unspecified reasons.

The rest either had no rejections or said they do not track rejected applications.

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State laws vary on who can request to vote by mail, when they can do so, and the requirements to obtain a ballot. Ohio allows voters to request an absentee ballot without any "excuse," however the application must contain certain types of information, one of which is a signature.

While Ohioans can register to vote online, the state's GOP-controlled legislature has for years stymied efforts to allow absentee ballot requests to be submitted via the internet. Ohio law mandates that the signatures for the request, not just the ballot itself, match those on file.

While supporters — typically those focused on the largely non-existent issue of impersonation voter fraud — say these signature requirements are essential for voter integrity, voting-rights advocates have long raised concerns that they disenfranchise voters.

According to a 2018 ACLU report, signature matching requirements are a problem for voters whose participation is more marginal. Elderly voters and those with disabilities are the most likely to have their signatures change over time and thus be rejected for mismatches.

The group also noted that the law can make it harder for those for whom English is not a first language to participate, as they often have to learn to write their name in characters that are new to them.

News of Ohio's signature matching issues comes amid a scourge of voter suppression controversies elsewhere.

On Friday, a Wisconsin judge ordered the state to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the state rolls who did not respond to a letter asking whether they had moved. A state commission, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, unanimously recommended against such a move, citing irregularities the last time they tried to do such a purge. A right-wing legal group sued to force them to carry it out anyway.

Georgia's Republican secretary of state also planned to carry out his own controversial purge of state voter rolls, possibly impacting hundreds of thousands of residents. A federal judge on Monday intervened hours before it was set to begin, giving opponents time to challenge it in court, but later changed his mind, determining the purge would go forward as scheduled.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones said he would "further consider the issue Thursday, but in the meantime the voter registration cancellation can move forward."

After a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted much of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats have been seeking to expand protections for the right to vote nationally. A House bill doing just that managed to pass the chamber this month, though only one Republican lawmaker voted in favor.

That bill now faces a dubious future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block all progressive legislation.

In recent weeks, the Democratic Governors Association and Stacey Abrams also announced a new initiative to fight voter suppression in all 50 states as well. The "Every State, Every Vote" initiative lays out in detail examples of ways in which different Democratic-led states are getting this done, highlighting actions by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who expanded automatic voter registration in his state, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, who restored voting rights for tens of thousands of people with previous felony convictions.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, some 70,000 people in Louisiana are on felony probation or parole, and the law previously required them to "complete their entire term on probation or parole before they are able to vote."

Edwards' signed the bill in May 2018, and it went into effect in March this year.

This article has been updated to include new developments in Georgia's voter roll purge effort.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.