STATEMENT: New Report Shows Over 100,000 Ohio Citizens Benefit From Voter Registration Compliance Efforts

Release Date: 
August 9, 2010

New York, NY — Over 100,000 low-income Ohio citizens have already submitted voter registration applications as a result of steps the state has taken to comply with Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993—specifically its requirement that states' public assistance offices offer voter registration opportunities and related services—according to anew report published this week by Demos.

Since passage of the NVRA, many states have neglected Section 7 of the Act, which requires that states public assistance agencies offer voter registration in conjunction with benefits applications, renewals and changes of address. Just before Thanksgiving of this past year, Ohio settled a three-year old lawsuit brought by Demos and its partners at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote, with help from pro bono law firm Dechert LLP, on behalf of low-income Ohio citizens who had not received the required voter registration services.

"Ohio's experience—the subject of this report—offers valuable lessons both for advocates and for state officials seeking to encourage voter registration and to achieve the full promise of the NVRA," said report author Lisa Danetz.

The new Demos report details the genesis of the lawsuit, highlights from the three years of litigation, the terms of the comprehensive settlement agreement, and the dramatic outcome that has resulted. Significantly, during the course of the litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit clarified that, no matter how a state structures its administration of public assistance benefits, state officials including the chief election official and heads of departments or agencies with responsibility for public assistance remain responsible for NVRA compliance—even if local agencies also bear responsibility. According to the unanimous Sixth Circuit opinion (joined by judges appointed by both President George H.W. Bush and President William Jefferson Clinton):

"To determine whether the Secretary [of State] may be held responsible for Ohio's NVRA violations, we need not look further than the text of the statute.

"[T]he Director, as the head of the "single state agency" in Ohio responsible for administering public assistance programs, has the responsibility to provide statewide voter registration services..."

Subsequent to the Sixth Circuit decision, discovery showed that no Ohio state official had exercised oversight or monitored the provision of voter registration services at public assistance offices. It was unsurprising then that many county public assistance offices had not been providing the required voter registration services.

The improvement in Ohio's performance as a result of the comprehensive settlement agreement has been nothing short of dramatic, with 101, 604 voter registration applications submitted at public assistance offices in the first six months of 2010 alone, a 950% increase in monthly submissions compared to the time period preceding the lawsuit. These extraordinary numbers were highlighted in two recent USA Today stories, Motor Voter' Law Likely to Be Bigger Priority for States and Welfare Agencies Boost Voters.

The settlement agreement contains many elements, including important requirements concerning notice, procedures, training, data collection, reporting, oversight, and additional services.

Key elements of the Settlement Agreement:

  • Procedural changes including designation of a staff person responsible for compliance with Section 7 of the NVRA, integration of voter registration materials within each agency benefits form, modification of the DJFS statewide computer system to incorporate voter registration, employee assistance to clients in completing voter registration materials, and inclusion of voter registration materials with other DJFS forms.
  • Training requirements ensure that voters and DJFS staff alike will be informed and trained, and that informational materials will be created and distributed in a variety of mediums including the state DJFS intranet and Secretary's website and via a toll free telephone help line dedicated to voter registration questions.
  • Reporting requirements include monthly reporting of voter registration applications submitted by each county DJFS, automated reporting, by month and by county, of important voter registration information, and the obligation of the Secretary's office to use collected data in reporting to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
  • Oversight provisions include monthly, quarterly, and other regular reviews by both the DJFS and the Secretary's office, and follow-up procedures including enforcement procedures for compliance failures and remedial action for individuals not given the opportunity to register to vote.
  • Additional voter registration services will be available to broaden registration among low-income residents including designation of the Department of Veterans Affairs as a voter registration agency and education of inmates.

Ohio's initial success is evident at the individual and county level as well, with larger county DJFS offices now submitting registration applications for significant numbers of clients every month, several counties that had not registered a single voter in the 2003-2004 reporting period now collecting over 100 registration applications each month, and smaller counties registering a significant percentage of their clients.

Ms. Danetz stated, "The results in Ohio show that, with proper implementation of the public agency provisions of the NVRA, hundreds of thousands or even millions of eligible low-income citizens throughout the country can be added to the ranks of registered voters, allowing increased political participation and moving closer to a fully inclusive and representative democracy."

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