BLOG: A Holiday Gift for Ohio's Low-Income Voters

BLOG: A Holiday Gift for Ohio’s Low-Income Voters

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Lisa Danetz, DEMOS, 12/15/09. COLUMBUS — Just in time for the holidays comes a gift for Ohio’s low-income citizens: an increased opportunity for political participation. Specifically, Demos and our partners have negotiated a litigation settlement that should ensure the state’s public assistance offices offer and assist their clients with voter registration.

More than three years ago, Demos, Project Vote, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began looking into the voter registration practices at public assistance offices in Ohio, as we have in many other states, to ensure compliance with Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act. What we found in the Buckeye State at that time was not pretty:

  • Interviews conducted in the three largest counties revealed that virtually no individuals were offered the opportunity to register at public assistance offices within those counties, and a separate investigation of six counties showed lack of compliance in all six (five of which did not even have one voter registration application on the premises).
  • Public assistance offices in ten counties did not register a single person from 2003-2004, and another 17 counties registered fewer than ten persons during that time frame.
  • The Secretary of State’s office told a researcher that its entire voter registration program for public assistance offices consisted of providing a toll-free number for local public assistance agencies to call to order voter registration applications.
  • The state entity overseeing the local public assistance offices, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, contended it had no authority to ensure the provision of voter registration by its local offices.
  • In response to a letter notifying it that voter registration was not being provided at public assistance offices, the Secretary of State’s office essentially indicated that Ohio already had enough registered voters.

These facts, among others, gave rise to a lawsuit whose point was to give citizens, like client Carrie Harkless, an opportunity to participate in the political process. The case was hard-fought on both sides for over three years.

Through twists and turns, ups and downs–including a dismissal, a trip to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a return to the district court, the case was finally settled on the eve of Thanksgiving.

To our happy surprise, we were supported by the Bush Department of Justice and we won in a unanimous panel opinion that included two Bush-appointees.

In the beginning, there was no state official who took responsibility to ensure the provision of voter registration services. Now, both the Secretary’s office and the Department of Jobs and Family Services will play active yet distinct roles in ensuring such services. Significantly, to a large degree, the voter registration will be institutionalized within agency procedures so that voter registration is treated just like another agency function. Among other things:

The state will implement an extensive and regular training program for those employees with voter registration responsibilities, which will ensure that turnover does not eliminate the positive efforts made by the state as time goes by;

A notice of the availability of voter registration and a voter registration application will be integrated within each agency’s benefits forms, which will ensure that public assistance recipients actually receive the voter registration forms;

The provision of voter registration, and its details, will be incorporated into the ODJFS statewide computer system used by all frontline caseworkers, which will ensure both the offer of voter registration as well as record important information about its provision; and

There will be regular reporting, monitoring, and follow-up regarding performance by the local agencies, and this will occur by several different mechanisms, which will ensure that local agencies actually follow state policy.

It is a new day, and one in which we expect to see great things in Ohio–including hundreds of thousands of registered low-income citizens.