Judge blocks Ohio law limiting signature gatherers

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of an Ohio law barring out-of-state residents from circulating petitions needed to place an issue or candidate on the ballot.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson said in ruling this week that he could identify no harm that would come to the state from allowing nonresidents to gather signatures.

The injunction comes in a dual challenge by the Libertarian Party of Ohio and a group that includes Citizens in Charge, a ballot access organization, and backers of two active ballot campaigns.

The law's opponents argue Ohio's signature-gathering rules infringe on their First Amendment right to free political speech by limiting their choice in signature gatherers.

The state counters that the law places only a minimal burden on the process and serves to protect against fraud. The law was written to exclude petitions for U.S. president after an earlier challenge by 2008 presidential candidate Ralph Nader — but Watson said that didn't matter.

Quoting precedent, the judge wrote that "laws prohibiting nonresidents from acting as petition circulators significantly burden political speech because they substantially reduce the number of potential circulators and are therefore subject to strict scrutiny."

For that reason, the state needs to show its law is narrow and serves a "compelling state interest," Watson said.

He noted that the state "undoubtedly has a compelling interest in preventing fraud in the petition process" and in being able to subpoena circulators. "The issue, however, is whether the State could use other, less restrictive means to achieve the same goal."

Watson did not address a second prong to the case: Libertarians' constitutional challenge to Ohio ballot access revisions signed into law last week.

The law establishes what qualifies as a political party and what percentage of the vote must be won to maintain that status. The current qualifications in Ohio law were deemed unconstitutional in 2006.