Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling: Ohio State Officials Responsible for Implementing National Voter Registration Law

For Immediate Release

Demos
Contact: 

Tim Rusch, Demos, (212) 389-1407, trusch@demos.org Stacie B. Miller,  Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, (202)  662-8317 Michael McDunnah, Project Vote, (202) 905-1397

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling: Ohio State Officials Responsible for Implementing National Voter Registration Law

Secretary of State Brunner and Department of Job and Family Services Director Jones-Kelly Must Enforce National Voter Registration Act Provisions for Agency-Based Voter Registration

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, 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
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.

For more information or to schedule an interview contact Tim Rusch at (212) 389-1407 or trusch@demos.org

The court's full decision is available for download at www.demos.org.

 

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