Cincinnati, OH — According to a unanimous federal appeals court decision, the state of Ohio may no longer shirk its responsibility to ensure that low-income citizens are offered the opportunity to register to vote, as required by federal law. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), more commonly known for its "Motor Voter" component, requires that states provide voter registration services in conjunction with the provision of public assistance benefits. Low-income citizens are less likely to own a car and are among the least likely to register to vote at motor vehicle departments, making the public assistance requirement crucial in reaching these citizens.
"The decision today means that state officials can no longer watch passively as local offices fail to provide voter registration to the state's low income citizens," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel at Demos, one of the election policy organizations involved in the litigation. "They will be held accountable if they let the problem fester and leave thousands of low income citizens outside the political process."
"We are thrilled that the court recognized that the state itself must ensure voter registration is offered as required by federal law," said Neil Steiner of Dechert LLP, who argued the case before the court.
"The court unanimously rejected the arguments of Secretary of State Brunner and Director Jones-Kelley that they are not responsible for ensuring that Ohio lives up to its federally-mandated obligation to offer voter registration at public assistance agencies, a ruling we wholeheartedly agree with," said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We hope that this will lead to many thousands of new registrations from Ohio's poorest citizens."
In response to the lawsuit and extensive evidence of the state's noncompliance with the federal law, Ohio had tried to deflect responsibility for its widespread and systemic failure to provide such voter registration services onto individual counties.
Today, however, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in Cincinnati, rebuffed that attempt by holding that both Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Director Helen E. Jones-Kelley of the Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS) have responsibility to ensure that the local offices where low-income citizens apply for and receive food stamps, cash assistance, and Medicaid are providing the opportunity to register to vote, assistance in registering, and that they are submitting completed forms to the Secretary of State's office.
"We're excited about the court's decision. If the result in this case is anything like the recent case in Missouri, tens of thousands of new Ohioans will be registered to vote for the next election" said Brian Mellor of Project Vote.
The lawsuit was originally brought in September 2006 against former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and then-DJFS Director Barbara Riley by Carrie Harkless, Tameca Mardis and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). It alleges that offices of the Ohio 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. Plaintiffs are represented by Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP, and Project Vote.
In addition to the first-hand experience of Ms. Harkless and Ms. Mardis, the lawsuit cites extensive evidence of Ohio's noncompliance with the NVRA:
--A report provided to the Secretary of State in February 2006 documented an investigation of six counties, showing lack of compliance in all six. DJFS offices in five of the six counties did not have any voter registration forms. The sole office that had the forms had relegated them to an unused corner of the office, without any signs advising public assistance applicants of the right to register to vote; the clerk did not even know the forms were there, much less provide the requisite assistance in completing them.
--Interviews that Ohio ACORN conducted outside public assistance agencies in Ohio's three largest counties revealed that virtually no individuals were offered the opportunity to register.
--Ohio's own statistics for the period 2002-2004 indicate that all of Ohio's DJFS offices collectively registered less than one-half of 1 percent of the number of persons applying for or seeking recertification of Food Stamps benefits. Four of the most populous counties in the state--Franklin, Hamilton, Summitand Montgomery--registered fewer persons at their DJFS offices than either Athens or Marion, two small counties with only a fraction of the population of the four larger counties. DJFS office in ten counties did not register a single person from 2002 to 2004, and another 17 counties registered fewer than ten persons.
Today's Sixth Circuit opinion reverses the lower court's August 2007 dismissal of the case. The case will now go back to the district court, allowing the plaintiffs the opportunity to ensure that Ohio institutes procedures to provide voter registration services at public assistance offices.
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