Hamilton County Prosecutors' Baseless Inquiry Could Chill Election Participation
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CINCINNATI – The American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights groups sent a letter to Hamilton County Special Prosecutor Michael O'Neill today urging him to suspend investigations of voters where there is no specific, credible evidence of fraud. According to news reports, Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters began an investigation into voters who took advantage of Ohio's five-day window in which a person may simultaneously register to vote and cast a ballot. Deters declined to give any specific evidence of voter fraud that would have triggered an investigation and local elections officials confirmed they received no reliable reports of voter fraud.
"Conducting an investigation without evidence isn't just bad police work – it's illegal when it could lead to lawful voters being intimidated," said Carrie Davis, staff counsel with the ACLU of Ohio. "It appears that Mr. Deters began his investigation based only on the fact that these individuals registered and voted during the September 30 to October 6 overlap window. Registering and voting are not a basis to undertake an investigation."
Deters issued a public records request for information on voters who used same-day voting in Hamilton County, and compared their registration forms with an unknown government database. He held a press conference on Monday, October 20 claiming that hundreds of the voters either had mismatched information or could not be found altogether. Additionally, Deters claimed that the voters did not fulfill an identification requirement because some presented either the last four digits of their social security number or Ohio driver's license number rather than a photo ID; however, both are acceptable under Ohio law. Deters called on the local Board of Elections to segregate these ballots from others and not count them immediately on Election Day as planned.
"What is going on here is nothing more than a partisan witch-hunt. There could be a multitude of reasons why voter information is inconsistent in the voter registration list and other databases. The vast majority of these issues are clerical errors made by elections officials, such as typos or misspellings – and disenfranchisement by typo is not legal," said Meredith Bell-Platts, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "Despite this, officials want to treat these voters as criminals by launching an investigation and segregating their votes without due cause. This kind of fishing expedition so close to an election raises serious questions about this investigation's legitimacy. Ohio officials should be expanding the right to vote, not denying it."
The Ohio Supreme Court and U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled on September 29, 2008 that same-day registration and voting during the five-day window is legal under Ohio law. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio declined to stop the program subsequent to the Ohio Supreme Court's ruling. The U.S. Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit upheld the five-day window as well.
On Monday, Deters stepped aside from the investigation after various officials questioned his impartiality because he serves as the Southwest Ohio chair of John McCain's presidential campaign. Local attorney Michael O'Neill was appointed by a judge to handle the case. However, Deters did issue a subpoena for un-redacted personal information on the voters in question.
"Officials have provided no evidence to support their investigation and to justify accusing innocent voters of unlawful activity. Federal law protects voters from being intimidated, even unintentionally, by the actions of others. If voters believe that simply casting their ballot lawfully will subject them to investigation by police, it will almost certainly lead to some avoiding the ballot box," Davis added.
A copy of today's letter is available online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/37280res20081021.html
More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project's challenges to voter suppression and other voting rights violations is available online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/36949res20080929.html