Federal lawsuit settlement to help low-income Ohioans register to vote
Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009
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 the Thanksgiving 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.
"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."
"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."
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.