In September 2006, the Lawyers’ Committee, together with Demos, Project Vote, and the law firm of Dechert LLP, filed suit against officials of the State of Ohio to remedy their violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The suit alleged that the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) was failing to provide thousands of low-income Ohioans with the opportunity to register to vote, as required by Section 7 of the NVRA, and that the state’s chief election official, the Secretary of State, had failed to address this violation.
Ohio’s own voter registration statistics for the period 2002-2004 showed that voter registration applications submitted through ODJFS represented less than one percent of the persons applying for Food Stamps or seeking recertification of these benefits. Public assistance offices in ten counties did not register a single person from 2002 to 2004, and another 17 counties registered fewer than ten persons.
Although the federal trial court dismissed the lawsuit in August 2007, the Plaintiffs appealed and the Sixth Circuit, in a groundbreaking October 2008 decision, reversed the trial court and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Harkless v. Brunner, 545 F.3d 445. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit rejected arguments by the defendant state officials that they were not responsible for NVRA implementation in the state because they had delegated their duties to local officials.
After the case returned to the trial court, plaintiffs undertook extensive pre-trial discovery, which ultimately led to the parties resolving the case by settlement in November 2009. The settlement agreement specifies the procedures that ODJFS shall use in distributing voter registration applications to public assistance clients, and requires training and monitoring to ensure that the State remains in compliance. Of special note is that the agreement requires ODJFS to incorporate voter registration into its existing computer system used for processing public assistance applications. The agreement will continue in effect through June 2013.
Monthly monitoring reports prepared by the State since the settlement show nearly a tenfold increase in the statewide number of registration applications submitted by public assistance clients.
The NVRA, most commonly known for its “motor voter” component, requires that states offer voter registration at public assistance offices. In enacting this statute, Congress expressly recognized that voting “is a fundamental right,” and took note of the disproportionate harm to voter participation by racial minorities caused by discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures. The NVRA’s public assistance component is particularly important since low-income citizens are less likely to own a car and thus are among the least likely to register to vote at motor vehicle offices.