Cleveland, OH —A federal lawsuit filed in Cleveland today charges that Ohio's Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, and the Director of its Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS), Barbara Riley, have violated the rights of thousands of low-income Ohioans by failing to provide voter registration opportunities in public assistance offices as required by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA is a federal law enacted 13 years ago to encourage voter registration and turnout in elections.
The lawsuit, brought by Carrie Harkless, Tameca Mardis and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), 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 attorneys from the National Voting Rights Institute, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP, Brian Mellor of Project Vote, and Cleveland attorney Donna Taylor Kolis.
The NVRA, signed into law in 1993, is commonly known as the Motor-Voter law for its requirement that states provide voter registration opportunities when residents apply for drivers' licenses. The NVRA also requires that voter registration must be offered during most transactions at public assistance agencies to ensure that those who do not visit motor vehicle departments still have an opportunity to register to vote. 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. Only 68 percent of Ohioans in households making less than $15,000 a year were registered to vote in 2004 versus 92 percent of individuals in households making $75,000 or more.
The lawsuit charges that the state has failed badly in enforcing these requirements, with some DJFS offices failing to register a single person in a two-year period and others registering only a handful.
"Once again, Ohio officials are breaking the laws they are sworn to uphold, and thousands of Ohioans have lost their right to register to vote as a result," said Lisa Danetz of the National Voting Rights Institute. "The state's disregard for the voting rights of low-income Ohioans is appalling."
In addition to the first-hand experience of Ms. Harkless and Ms. Mardis, neither of whom were ever informed of her right to register at DJFS offices, 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 one 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, Summit and 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 10 people.
"After repeated notifications, the state has not remedied this clear-cut violation of the law. We therefore had no choice but to ask the federal court to do so," said Jon Greenbaum, Director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In May 2006, the law firm of Dechert LLP, together with the National Voting Rights Institute and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sent a formal notice letter to Secretary of State Blackwell informing him of the state's violation of the NVRA. Mr. Blackwell, however, responded by denying that the state had any problem with noncompliance, and declined to develop any plan to remedy the longstanding violations.
"Low-income people in Ohio need a voice in government, and they shouldn't have to jump through additional hoops simply to secure their right to register to vote," commented Mary Keith, chairwoman of Ohio ACORN. "It is a shame that Mr. Blackwell has spent more time suppressing voter registration with unconstitutional regulations than fulfilling his obligation to help people participate in the democratic process."
The current lawsuit in Ohio developed out of the work of the NVRA Implementation Project, an effort by the non-profit organizations Demos, ACORN and Project Vote to ascertain and enhance states' compliance with the NVRA public assistance requirements, and out of efforts to improve implementation of that provision of the law with the legal expertise and resources of the Lawyers' Committee and National Voting Rights Institute. In several states, assistance provided by the Project has led to large increases in the number of low-income residents offered the opportunity to register to vote.
To view the complaint, and for more information on the NVRA and voting rights, visit archive.demos.org.