Federal judge requires Ohio to accept electronic signatures from initiative campaigns seeking to place minimum wage and voting changes on the ballot

On May 19, U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus ordered Ohio to accept electronic signatures from the campaigns sponsoring the Minimum Wage Increase Initiative and the Voting Requirements Initiative. The judge also extended the signature deadline from July 1 to July 31. The judge’s order only applies to the ballot measure campaigns that sued the state, including several local marijuana decriminalization initiative campaigns.

On March 30, 2020, Ohioans for Raise the Wage and Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections filed a lawsuit in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas asking for the July 1 signature deadline to be extended, the number of signatures required to be reduced, and permission to gather signatures online. On April 28, Judge David C. Young dismissed the case arguing that since the petition requirements for initiatives are in the Ohio Constitution “the ability to change those requirements is reserved only to the people.” He added that there is no exception for public health emergencies. Following the case dismal, the campaigns brought their case to the federal court.

U.S. District Judge Sargus argued in his opinion that “these unique historical circumstances of a global pandemic and the impact of Ohio’s Stay-at-Home Orders, the State’s strict enforcement of the signature requirements for local initiatives and constitutional amendments severely burden Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.” The ruling did not change the number of signatures required or the state’s distribution requirement.

Ohio filed an appeal of the ruling on May 20. If the decision is not reversed, Ohioans for Raise the Wage and Ohioans for Secure and Fair Elections have until July 31 to collect 443,958 valid signatures.

The Minimum Wage Initiative would incrementally increase the state’s minimum wage to $13 per hour by January 1, 2025. After 2025, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation. The first increase would be on January 1, 2021, to $9.60 per hour.

The Voting Requirements Initiative would remove the requirement that voters must be registered 30 days prior to an election; require absentee ballots requested by military personnel or voters outside of the U.S. be sent 46 days before the election; automatically register citizens at motor vehicle departments unless the citizen refuses registration via a written statement; allow voter registration at polling locations; and require 28 days of early voting.

Ballotpedia has identified 11 lawsuits in nine states seeking changes or suspensions of ballot measure requirements. The topics of the lawsuits include:
• the number of signatures required,
• notary requirements for remote signatures,
• the ability to collect signatures electronically, and
• the extension of signature deadlines.

Before March 2020, no states allowed the use of electronic signatures for statewide initiative and referendum petitions. While some states allowed remote signatures through petition sheets printed, signed, and mailed, no states allowed remote signature gathering through email before the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 29, 2020, Massachusetts became the first state to allow campaigns to collect electronic signatures for statewide citizen-initiatives for the 2020 cycle after four campaigns filed a lawsuit and the secretary of the commonwealth agreed to a settlement.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed an executive order on May 17 that authorized the Colorado Secretary of State to establish temporary rules allowing for remote petition signature gathering to be signed through mail and email. The rules were expected to be finalized by the Secretary of State in early June. Prior to the order, petition circulators were required to witness each act of signing in person. The order also removed individual initiative signature deadlines of six months after ballot language finalization and instead required that signatures for all initiatives are due by August 3, 2020.

The Washington, D.C., Council passed a bill on May 5 that allowed remote signature gathering for initiative campaigns through email.

On May 13, 2020, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected a request made by four ballot initiative campaigns to allow them to gather signatures through E-Qual, which is the state’s online signature collection platform, during the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 30, Missoula District Judge John Larson rejected a request by Montana ballot initiative petitioners to allow them to use electronic signatures. Judge Larson ruled that the State’s “compelling interest in maintaining the integrity and security of its election process outweighs any burden on [the] Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”

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About the author

Victoria Antram

Victoria Antram is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

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