Campaigns/Elections

Sixth Circuit Rejects Claim Covid-19 Requires Easing of Ballot Initiative Rules

Two constitutional rights plus one outside catalyst do not equal one constitutional wrong.

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Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a challenge to Ohio's laws governing the placement of initiatives on the ballot. The plaintiffs argued that the relevant ballot access provisions imposed an unconstitutional burden in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The panel, consisting of Judges Sutton, McKeague and Nalbandian, disagreed.

The court's per curiam opinion in Thompson v. Dewine summarizes the case:

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life in many ways. In response to the unfolding public health crisis, states across the country imposed various orders in hopes of containing the virus. Ohio, for its part, asked its citizens to stay at home and restricted the size of gatherings.

This case, which we've seen before, involves the intersection of COVID-19, the state's responses to that pandemic, and some of Ohio's conditions that must be met before a ballot initiative can get on the ballot for Election Day. See Thompson v. DeWine, 959 F.3d 804, 806 (6th Cir.) (per curiam), mot. to vacate stay denied, --- S. Ct. ----, No. 19A1054, 2020 WL 3456705 (2020).

Plaintiffs say that Ohio's ballot initiative conditions are unconstitutional as applied during this pandemic and request that the federal courts relax them, at least for the time being. Plaintiffs' challenge is a curious one. There is no question that Ohio's ballot initiative conditions are, standing alone, constitutional, there is no question that Ohio is not responsible for COVID-19, and Plaintiffs are not challenging Ohio's restrictions on public gatherings and the like, which Ohio imposed to address the pandemic—so we assume those are constitutional as well. And yet, Plaintiffs contend that when you put all of this together, in effect, two constitutional rights plus one outside catalyst make one constitutional wrong. The district court agreed and granted a preliminary injunction. We stayed that order because we disagreed. And now, because we still disagree, we reverse the district court's grant of a preliminary injunction

From later in the opinion:

we note that the Federal Constitution gives states, not federal courts, "the ability to choose among many permissible options when designing elections." Id. We don't "lightly tamper" with that authority. Id. Instead, the power to adapt or modify state law to changing conditions—especially during a pandemic—rests with state officials and the citizens of the state.

So while federal courts can sometimes enjoin unconstitutional state laws, we can't engage in "a plenary re-writing of the State's ballot-access provisions." Esshaki, 813 F. App'x at 172. Instead, "[t]he Constitution grants States broad power to prescribe the 'Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives,' which power is matched by state control over the election process for state offices." Clingman v. Beaver, 544 U.S. 581, 586 (2005) (citations omitted).

We don't have the power to tell states how they should run their elections. If we find a state ballot-access requirement unconstitutional, we can enjoin its enforcement. See, e.g., Esshaki, 813 F. App'x at 172. But otherwise, "state and local authorities have primary responsibility for curing constitutional violations." Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 687 n.9 (1978); Esshaki, 813 F. App'x at 172 (holding that it "was not justified" for a district court to extend the deadline to file signed petitions and order the state to accept electronic signatures).

So when the district court here ordered Ohio to accept electronically signed and witnessed petitions and extended the deadline for submitting petitions, it overstepped its bounds. It effectively rewrote Ohio's constitution and statutes and "intrude[d] into the proper sphere of the States." Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70, 131 (1995) (Thomas, J., concurring); see Thompson, 959 F.3d at 812 ("[T]he district court exceeded its authority by rewriting Ohio law with its injunction."). Federal courts don't have this authority.