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Voting rights groups sue Ohio officials including Sec of State Blackwell for allegedly violating federal voter registration law

RAW STORY
Published: Thursday September 21, 2006

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Voting rights groups filed a lawsuit against Ohio officials, including Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell for allegedly violating a federal voter registration law.

"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)," according to a press release received by RAW STORY. "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 Harkless, 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," the press release continues.

Lisa Danetz, staff attorney for the National Voting Rights Institute, calls Ohio's "disregard" for low-income residents' voting rights "appalling" in the press release.

"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 Danetz.

Introduction to the federal complaint:

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CARRIE HARKLESS, TAMECA MARDIS and ASSOCIATION OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS FOR REFORM NOW, Plaintiffs,

v.

J. KENNETH BLACKWELL, in his official capacity as Secretary of State, and BARBARA RILEY, in her official capacity as Director of the Department of Job and Family Services, Defendants.

Introduction

  1. This action seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to redress defendants' ongoing disregard of their obligations under Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "NVRA"), 42 U.S.C. 1973gg-5. Section 7 of the NVRA mandates that all offices in a state that provide public assistance must distribute voter registration application forms, assist applicants in completing the forms, and accept completed voter registration application forms. Section 7 further requires all public assistance offices to distribute voter registration materials with each application, recertification, renewal or change of address relating to an applicant's receipt of public assistance. Pursuant to the federal law, the public assistance agencies must also inquire of every applicant, in writing, whether he or she would like to register to vote or change his or her voter registration address and explain to every applicant that the decision whether to register to vote will not affect the applicant's eligibility for benefits or the amount of benefits available.

  2. The requirements of Section 7 reflect Congress's objective to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in federal elections, and to ensure the registration of "the poor and persons with disabilities who do not have driver's licenses and will not come into contact with the other principal place to register under this Act [motor vehicle agencies]." 42 U.S.C. 1973gg(b)(1); NVRA Conference Report (H.Rept. 103-66).

  3. Defendant Blackwell, who as Secretary of State and "chief elections official" is responsible for ensuring Ohio's compliance with the NVRA's requirements, including Section 7, has not fulfilled his responsibilities for implementing voter registration opportunities in the state's Department of Job and Family Services ("DJFS"). Defendant Riley, as Director of DJFS -- the state agency responsible for administration of most public assistance programs in Ohio covered by the NVRA -- also has failed to ensure implementation of programs and procedures to make voter registration available in agency offices, as mandated by Section 7.

  4. As a result of these ongoing violations, thousands of Ohio's low-income citizens who receive public assistance, including plaintiffs Carrie Harkless and Tameca Mardis, have not been offered the opportunity to register to vote or to change their voter address upon moving to a new residence. ACORN and its members have expended substantial time and resources in an effort to make voter registration available to these low-income citizens -- which would have been unnecessary had defendants complied with the law -- but thousands of eligible voters remain unregistered and effectively disenfranchised as a result of defendants' actions and inaction.

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PDF link of the filed complaint

More information at the non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization website, Demos.