Federal Court Lawsuit Settlement Brings Ohio into Compliance with NVRA

Resolving a three-year old lawsuit filed against the state of Ohio that charged widespread violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA),  parties in the case have submitted a settlement agreement to the court that should ensure voter registration opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Ohio public assistance clients. Evidence presented in the case had shown that many of Ohio's county public assistance offices were ignoring their responsibilities to provide voter registration to their low-income clients, as required by the NVRA.

Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dechert LLP, and Cleveland attorney Donna Taylor Kolis of Freedman, Domiano & Smith represented the plaintiffs in the case, which included Lorain resident Carrie Harkless, Cleveland resident Tameca Mardis, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Defendants named included the Ohio Secretary of State (SOS) and the Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS)

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.  

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.

As a result of the agreement, submitted this holiday weekend, 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.  Among other important gains, the settlement requires that: voter registration applications be integrated within each agency's benefits forms; voter registration be incorporated into the ODJFS statewide computer system used by all frontline caseworkers; the SOS designates the Department of Veterans Affairs as a voter registration agency; and the state will implement extensive training and monitoring requirements.

As part of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project, 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.

"Across the country, the people least likely to be registered to vote are those from low-income households," says 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."

To learn more about the Public Agency Voter Registration Project, go here.

To read the full press release on the settlement, go to www.projectvote.org.  

Tags: Demos, Harkless v. Brunner, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, low income, National Voter Registration Act, Ohio, Project Vote, public assistance, Voting Rights (all tags)

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