Sept. 22, 2006 – Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has been named in another voting rights lawsuit, this time over allegations that his office has denied thousands of low-income residents their right to register to vote or to change their registration addresses.
The National Voting Rights Institute filed the suit in federal court Thursday on behalf of two low-income residents and the anti-poverty group ACORN.
The suit also names Barbara Riley, director of Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS).
Plaintiffs allege that Blackwell and Riley violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Also known as the Motor Voter Act, the federal law requires states to provide voter-registration opportunities at departments of motor vehicles, as well as at all public-assistance offices and offices that serve people with disabilities. Federal and state law requires such offers to be written and explicit.
Plaintiff Carrie Harkless, a 28-year-old mother of one and resident of Lorain, visited the Ohio DJFS numerous times since 2004, but said she was never offered the opportunity to register to vote or to change her voter-registration address, which the 1993 Act requires.
Likewise, Cleveland resident Tameca Mardis, a mother of three, has been using DJFS offices since 2001, shortly after she became eligible to vote. She also alleges no one informed her she could register to vote during numerous office visits applying for food stamps, Medicaid and other social services.
Plaintiffs allege that Blackwell and Riley violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to provide written and explicit voter-registration opportunities at all public-assistance offices.
National Voting Rights Institute attorney Lisa Danetz said the failure of Ohio state officials to provide voter registration services at public assistance offices disenfranchises low-income people.
"Because low-income people are less likely to own a car," Danetz told The NewStandard, "and [are] among the least likely to register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles, it’s especially important that public assistance agencies offer these required services so that people can register to vote."
Danetz also points out that low-income people, many of whom rent housing, are more likely to move, and thus need to change their voter-registration address.
The suit alleges the violations are widespread, despite Ohio law requiring a trained voter-registration coordinator in each state agency. Ohio law also requires that state agencies distribute a form to all social service applicants that include the question, "Do you want to register to vote or update your current voter registration?"
Plaintiffs state that spot-checks of DJFS offices, conducted independently by Cleveland State University law student Anne Bringman, in six counties in October and November 2005 found that only one office had voter registration application forms on site, and they were "buried on a shelf in a remote corner of the room." In Cuyahoga County, which includes the city of Cleveland, the suit states there were no forms visible in the waiting room and an employee told Bringman that the office did not have any forms.
In six counties in October and November 2005, only one office had voter registration application forms on site, and they were "buried on a shelf in a remote corner of the room."
During 2003 and 2004, according to the complaint, DJFS offices processed approximately 4.7 million applications for food stamps and each of those applicants should have been offered the opportunity to vote. But DJFS only processed less than one half of one percent of that number of voter-registration application forms.
The lawsuit comes after voting rights groups, including ACORN, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition, sent several letters to Secretary Blackwell’s office beginning last February offering to meet with state officials to help address the problem. However, according to the complaint, the Secretary of State’s office responded by saying Voting Rights Act compliance was not its responsibility. The plaintiffs say Blackwell failed to respond to a follow-up letter from ACORN’s legal counsel sent last July.
TNS’s calls to Blackwell’s press office were unreturned.
"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," said Mary Keith, chair of Ohio ACORN, in a statement.
Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the state has failed to fulfill its obligations under the Voter Registration Act, and to establish a detailed remedial plan to ensure low-income Ohioans are provided with the opportunity to register to vote.