WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to direct Ohio to accept electronic signatures from residents seeking to place voter initiatives on the ballot rather than signing petitions in pen due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The justices in a brief order opted not to reinstate a federal judge’s May 19 ruling that had allowed organizers of proposed ballot measures, including one to raise the state’s minimum wage, to use electronic signatures and extended their deadline for collecting them. In order for a ballot initiative to be put up for a vote, organizers must secure a certain number of signatures of registered voters.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put the judge’s ruling on hold, siding with state officials. Activists in favor of decriminalizing marijuana then asked the Supreme Court to intervene.
Under Ohio law, organizers of ballot measures must collect signatures in “wet” ink from registered voters in-person. Individuals and organizations seeking to put issues directly before the voters sued Ohio Governor Mike DeWine in April, saying his stay-at-home order intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus made meeting those requirements effectively impossible.
The activists did not challenge the legality of DeWine’s stay-at-home order. Instead, they sought the relaxation of signature-gathering rules, saying their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment were being violated.
A federal judge in Columbus ruled in their favor, saying the ballot initiative organizers “have no hope of collecting the required number of signatures from the required geographic distribution” before a July deadline.
The 6th Circuit put that decision on hold, however, finding that the ballot rules should be enforced even during the pandemic. The appeals court said there were creative ways for activists to collect signatures such as bringing their petitions to the homes of voters.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)