As a result of our intervention, the number of voter registrations collected by Ohio public assistance agencies increased by an estimated 816,000
Beginning in 2005, voting rights advocates wrote to the Ohio Secretary of State to express concerns about the state’s compliance of Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition wrote detailed letters explaining that Ohio’s failure to comply with the public assistance provisions of the NVRA were systemic and statewide deficiencies; and that it was the responsibility of the Secretary to remedy. Anne Bringman’s report Is Ohio Complying with Mandatory Federal Voting Registration Law (2006), revealed that none of Ohio’s six largest counties were complying with Section 7 of the NVRA. Data showing the number of voter registration applications submitted at public assistance offices also indicated that agencies were not meeting their voter registration obligations: for the period of 2002-2004, from a base of nearly 8 million registered voters, all of Ohio’s assistance agencies collectively registered only 38,821 voters. By contrast, Ohio had more than 4.7 million initial applications and recertifications for Food Stamps, and that is just one of many public assistance agencies where voter registration materials are required to be distributed. In response, on May 12, 2006, Demos, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dechert LLP sent a final third notice to the Ohio Secretary of State on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) urging once again that the Secretary remedy non-compliance of Section 7 of the NVRA.
Section 7 of the NVRA states that each public assistance office must, at a minimum (i) distribute voter registration application forms; (ii) assist applicants in completing the voter registration forms; (iii) accept completed voter registration application forms and forward them to the appropriate election official.
The failure of Ohio public assistance agencies to comply with the NVRA negatively impacted ACORN, Carrie Harkless and Tameca Mardis. Ms. Harkless and Ms. Mardis were qualified Ohio voters, but had not been provided with voter registration services when interacting with the state’s public assistance agencies. Their experiences were shared by individuals residing across that state. In order to remedy the state’s failure to provide such services, ACORN had to spend its limited resources registering voters who would have been registered by the state had Ohio been meeting its voter registration obligations. The organization had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and employee and volunteer hours on voter registration efforts. These efforts diverted resources needed for community organization, issues campaigns, and other programs for full achievement of its goals.
In September 2006, after the state failed to remedy the problems identified in the May 2016 letter, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) and the Secretary of State were sued based on clear evidence that Ohio public assistance agencies were not providing voter registration services as required by Section 7 of the NVRA. The lawsuit alleged that offices of the OH Department of Job and Family Services failed to provide Ms. Harkless, Ms. Mardis and thousands of other low-income Ohioans with the opportunity to register to vote or change their voter registration address during visits to DJFS offices to apply for or recertify their eligibility for public assistance benefits.
Although the District Court initially dismissed the lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated our claims on appeal, establishing an important precedent that state officials have ultimate responsibility for compliance with the NVRA, even when local agencies also have day-to-day responsibilities for administering public benefits programs. After extensive fact discovery in the district court, the parties agreed to a comprehensive settlement requiring substantial improvements in procedures for providing voter registration services through state public assistance agencies. These improvements included the creation of new voter registration and training materials, designation of staff responsible for ensuring NVRA compliance, clarification of voter registration processes for all covered transactions done in-office, by mail, over the phone or Internet, regular employee training on NVRA compliance, monthly data reporting and review and on-site observational review to spot potential NVRA compliance problems. As a result of our intervention, the number of voter registrations collected by Ohio public assistance agencies increased by an estimated 816,000.
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Carrie Harkless, Tameca Mardis
Project Vote, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP and Dan Law Firm