The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and several voting rights groups are asking that a special prosecutor drop his investigation into vague, unspecified allegations of voter registration fraud. If the probe isn’t ended, the groups hint that they may file a lawsuit against the Prosecutor’s Office.
This week’s issue of CityBeat features a Porkopolis column detailing the investigation, which was launched by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. Deters also is Sen. John McCain’s Southwest Ohio campaign chairman, and many people have viewed Deters’ action as a partisan tactic designed to suppress the surge in new voters on the Democratic side.
After Deters revealed through a press release issued Saturday afternoon that he launched the probe, public criticism prompted him two days later to appoint attorney Mike O’Neill as a special prosecutor overseeing the effort. O’Neill is a registered Republican who used to work for the Prosecutor’s Office, but has a reputation for professionalism in the local legal community.
The ACLU and other groups sent a six-page, single-spaced letter to O’Neill Tuesday, alleging that the investigation violates federal election laws and is unconstitutional.
“Mr. Deters initially declined to identify any specific basis for an investigation other than general 'complaints of fraud,' and couldn’t discern the source of the allegations,” the letter states. “It is our understanding that the Hamilton County Board of Elections has confirmed that no fraud allegations have come from county election officials. The possibility that Mr. Deters launched this investigation without any evidence or credible allegation that such voters have registered or voted illegally is troubling.”
The letter continues, “Subsequent statements attributed to Mr. Deters make broad claims of illegal conduct. Such claims in the weeks before an election will have a chilling effect on participation by lawful voters.
“Mr. Deters apparently conducted some version of a database match and determined that 100 registrants did not match the addresses in other databases, and another 166 could not be found in whatever database was used. As you are undoubtedly aware, there are many reasons for which such database mismatches – through no fault of the voter – would yield unreliable results and cannot serve as the sole basis for questioning a voter’s eligibility.”
CityBeat filed a public records request Monday with the Prosecutor’s Office, seeking copies of any complaints that prompted the investigation. Julie Wilson, the office’s spokeswoman, replied Tuesday that the documents were exempted from state public records law due to the “law enforcement investigatory exception.”
Most complaints that prompt criminal investigations, however, like a police report alleging domestic violence or robbery, are considered public records and are routinely made available to the media.
The letter sent to O’Neill is signed by numerous individuals including representatives of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and several law school professors.
Among the information sought in the probe is the driver’s license numbers or the last four digits of Social Security numbers for people who voted during an “early voting window” from Sept. 30 through Oct. 6.
The ACLU’s letter states, “Voters in Hamilton County will now be fearful that exercising the right to vote has exposed them to law enforcement investigation, and this will surely chill their future willingness to participate in elections. The fact that the subpoena issued by Mr. Deters required release of these voters’ personal information to the chair of the Southwest Ohio John McCain campaign will, in the public mind, inevitably call into question the fundamental integrity of the investigation you have inherited and further dissuade lawful voters from seeking to exercise their voting rights.”
On a related note, a group plans to stage a Halloween-themed protest near Deters’ downtown office on Friday.
A group calling itself Citizens Against Joe Deters will hold a “Halloween Party and Protest” at noon at the Hamilton Country Prosecutor’s Office, 230 E. Ninth St.
A press release describes the group’s mission as “a grassroots organization of citizens who are frustrated by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters double standard of justice and public insults against people of color, people who aren’t wealthy, and people who aren’t well-connected. Our organization’s mission is simple — pressure Joe Deters to resign from his position as Hamilton County Prosecutor.”
During Friday’s protest, the group “will not give free Halloween candy to wealthy, well-connected, white people. Only poor white people and poor minorities will receive candy. … Unfair? So is double-standard sentences dished out by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. Clearly, there are two criminal justice systems in Hamilton County.”