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Access to Voter Registration for Low-income Ohioans Set to Improve
Christian Smith-Socaris on December 10, 2009 - 1:56pm
Low-income Ohioans will soon be ensured access to voter registration at Ohio public assistance offices as the result of a settlement agreement that resolves a three-year old lawsuit compelling compliance with the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Section 7 of the NVRA requires public assistance agencies to provide voter registration opportunities to their clients. The lawsuit was brought because many of Ohio’s public assistance offices were ignoring their responsibilities to provide voter registration to their clients, and there was no state official overseeing the state’s compliance with the law. At the time of filing, then-Secretary of State (SOS) 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.
“As a result of the steps the Secretary of State and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (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."
As a result of the agreement, the provision of voter registration services will be institutionalized within the office procedures at county DJFS offices, and both the Secretary of State (SOS) and ODJFS will make sure such services are provided. In particular:
- A notice of the availability of voter registration and a voter registration application will be integrated within each agency’s benefits forms;
- The provision of voter registration, and its details, will be incorporated into the ODJFS statewide computer system used by all frontline caseworkers;
- The state will implement an extensive and regular training program for those employees with voter registration responsibilities;
- There will be regular reporting and monitoring of important data from the statewide computer system, county boards of elections and county DJFS offices;
- The SOS will conduct at least 20 unannounced spot checks of local agencies each year;
- Both the SOS and ODJFS will follow up with counties whose local agencies appear not to be providing voter registration services;
- ODJFS will conduct a regular review of voter registration services, using the same mechanisms that it employs to oversee the local provision of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps); and,
- To broaden voter registration among low-income residents, the SOS will designate the Department of Veterans Affairs, in its administration of medical services and services for homeless veterans, as a voter registration agency. The SOS will also work with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to encourage voter registration among recently released offenders.
The settlement is a result of work carried out by the NVRA Implementation Project, a collaboration between Demos, Project Vote, ACORN and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The project's goal is to remedy the serious under-representation of low-income voters in the electorate. In Ohio, only seventy-one percent of low-income citizens are registered to vote compared to ninety percent of affluent citizens. Similar disparities exist throughout the country, even as racial, ethnic, age and other disparities have recently been reduced. NVRA compliance is also an element of PSN's 2010 Shared Multi-State Election Reform Agenda and will be an election reform focus for us in the coming legislative session.
Similar lawsuits have been filed 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.
Settlement in Lawsuit against State of Ohio for NVRA Noncompliance
Demos - NVRA Implementation Project
Demos - Federal Court Lawsuit Settlement Brings Ohio into Compliance with National Voter Registration Act
Project Vote - Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate
Progressive States Network - NVRA Compliance
Progressive States Network - 2010 Shared Multi-State Election Reform Agenda