Cleveland, OH — Low-income Ohio citizens will be ensured access to voter registration at Ohio public assistance offices as a result of a settlement agreement submitted to Federal District Court Judge Patricia A. Gaughan over this past holiday weekend.
The settlement successfully resolves a three-year old lawsuit filed against the Ohio Secretary of State (SOS) and the Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) in September 2006 by Lorain resident Carrie Harkless, Cleveland resident Tameca Mardis, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) charging widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Section 7 of the NVRA requires public assistance agencies to provide voter registration opportunities to their clients.
Extensive pre-suit investigation and discovery in the case revealed that many of Ohio's county public assistance offices were ignoring their responsibilities to provide voter registration to their low-income clients. Currently, only seventy-one percent of low-income Ohioans are registered to vote compared to ninety percent of affluent Ohioans.
Before the lawsuit, there was no state official overseeing the state's compliance with the federal law. Although Ohio has designated the Secretary of State as its chief election official responsible for NVRA compliance, at the time the lawsuit was filed, then-Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell contended that the state's obligation to provide voter registration services to its low-income residents was satisfied by the maintenance of a toll-free hotline for public assistance offices to call. ODJFS claimed that Ohio law prohibited it from ensuring compliance by county offices.
"As a result of the steps the Secretary of State and ODJFS Director will take, we expect hundreds of thousands of voting-eligible low-income Ohioans to be registered to vote," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos and co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "We applaud the integration of voter registration into agency processes as well as the planned monitoring of the county public assistance offices."
The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, and after a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the case returned to the district court where it settled after extensive fact discovery. The Court of Appeals decision established an important precedent that state officials have ultimate responsibility for compliance with this federal law, even when local agencies also have day-to-day responsibility for administering public benefits programs.
"The changes made under this agreement represent a long-overdue recognition of the need for an active program of voter registration at public assistance offices in Ohio" said Jon Greenbaum, Legal Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "With nearly a full year before the next federal general election, we believe that the implementation of these improvements will bring many thousands of Ohio citizens who would otherwise be unregistered to the polls on election day 2010."
As a result of the agreement, the provision of voter registration services will be institutionalized within the office procedures at county DJFS offices, and both the SOS and ODJFS will make sure such services are provided. In particular:
"This settlement is good news for all citizens in Ohio and especially the low income communities we serve. The fact that the state of Ohio will honor its duty under the law by assisting people to register to vote when they are in government offices will help more citizens become voters," said Mary Keith, a member of Ohio ACORN's Board of Directors.
"Across the country, the people least likely to be registered to vote are those from low-income households," said Teresa James, Election Counsel for Project Vote. "Our hope is that other states that have been ignoring the NVRA will not wait to be sued to fulfill their obligations to these millions of unregistered Americans."
"We are delighted to have worked with our co-counsel and Ohio officials to ensure that Ohio citizens receiving public assistance will be afforded a greater opportunity to register to vote and participate in the democratic process," said Neil Steiner, a partner at Dechert LLP.
The groups have filed similar lawsuits in Indiana and New Mexico, and in 2008 successfully settled a lawsuit in Missouri that has led to a vast increase in voter registration applications submitted at the state's public assistance offices. In fact, agency-based registrations in Missouri skyrocketed from 8,000 a year to more than 100,000 in just eight months after the court-ordered settlement. It is estimated that proper implementation of the NVRA's public assistance provisions nationwide could result in 2-3 million additional voter registrations per year.
The plaintiffs in the Ohio case are represented by Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Dechert LLP and Cleveland attorney Donna Taylor Kolis of Freedman, Domiano & Smith. The full settlement agreement can be viewed at www.demos.org.