Judge Rules Ohio Curbs on Voter Registration Drives Unenforceable

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: US District Judge Kathleen O’Malley imposed a permanent injunction Tuesday against enforcement of certain provisions of Ohio’s 2006 election law that imposed curbs on voter registration drives she ruled violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

Because they impede the purpose and intent of these statutes, O’Malley declared them unenforceable.

The case, Project Vote v. Blackwell, originally filed in May 2006 on behalf of nonprofit groups who were conducting voter registration drives in Ohio, challenged several provisions of Ohio House Bill 3, enacted in 2006, as well as the Secretary of State’s implementation of those provisions.

In a phone interview with ePluribus Media's Ohio News Bureau, Renee Paradis, counsel at the Democracy Program at The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law, said that the groups who brought the lawsuit were Acorn, Project Vote, People for the American Way, Common Cause and the Community of Faith Assemblies Church of Cleveland.

Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program issued a media release:

"We are very pleased the Court recognized how laws restricting voter registration drives unlawfully stand in the way of core democratic activity. The original law hindered efforts by non-partisan groups to help low-income, minority and disabled citizens to register to vote. We've seen a renewed interest and desire from many Americans who want to cast a vote during this presidential primary season. This decision will remove Ohio's unnecessary and unreasonable barriers to groups assisting those who wish to register and participate in the primary season."

HB 3 AND KEY ISSUES

HB 3 was sponsored by Kevin DeWine, a Republican House member who is now Deputy Chairman for the Ohio GOP. The bill, endorsed by his party but opposed by Democrats, created new election law covering an array of issues from voter identification to provisional ballots to statewide voter registration database and matters of notification, among other items.

For the plaintiffs who were conducting their own voter registration drives, the key issues prompting them to file their lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and the administrative rules his agency wrote to comply with the law, were over the bill’s provisions regarding registration of persons registering voters, the penalty for failure to properly return voter registration forms and the requirement that signature gatherers had to preregister themselves and undergo training exclusively through a Website.

At the time, DeWine said he did not believe that the rules are the problem. He said Blackwell properly drafted the rules to comply with the bill, but that the bill "might need to be fixed because the legislature did not intend to subject registrars to criminal prosecution for first turning their voter registration forms over to a supervisor."

REPUBLICAN POWER ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE

When the bill became law in 2006, DeWine's party held commanding margins in both chambers of the Ohio legislature and had a compliant governor in Bob Taft. But time and circumstances have taken their toll on the dominance the Ohio GOP had on state government, which they ruled from top to bottom for 16 years.

If DeWine wants to make legislative corrections in lieu of O'Malley's ruling, the road ahead will be far bumpier than the paved freeway he traveled last time. The first pothole he faces is a new Democratic governor, the first in 16 years. The second obstacle is the legislature. The Ohio Senate is still controlled 21-12 by Republicans. The Ohio House, however, only has DeWine's party in the majority by 3 seats, having lost seven seats in 2006, when Ohio voters largely turned out statewide Republican office holdeers for their Democratic cousins. To make changes to Ohio election law that DeWine and company would like to make would require the help of Democrats and Governor Ted Strickland, and that's not likely to happen this year.

With O'Malleys ruling today, groups like the plaintiffs and others will be energized to register even more voters during this presidential election year. Those voters, if turnout in this year's primaries are any indication of zeal for new faces and ideas that will bring a distinct change from the programs and policies of President Bush, are flocking to Democratic candidates like Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton.

THE BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE

Speaking to ePluribus Media's Ohio News Bureau from her office in lower Manhattan, Renee Paradis, Counsel at in The Democracy Program at The Brennan Center, said the problems stemmed from both the lack of clarity in the Ohio law and Blackwell’s poor construction of administrative rules to implement them.

Paradis said the Ohio legislature could go back and clarify matters, as did the Florida legislature who was confronted with a similar problem. “Our position is that before imposing any kind of restrictions on voter registration drives, problems must be defined so that legislation can be a close fit to them,” she said, adding that the remedy to poorly worded statutes and agency rules designed to follow them is “not to shut down voter registration drives but to put more resources into them.”

Blackwell, who came under fire for his dual role as chief elections officer for Ohio while also being the co-chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign operation in 2004, could have appealed the temporary injunction O’Malley put on the provisions in September of 2006, but he didn’t, according to Paradis, who said of the case wasn’t highly litigated.

She speculated that it is highly unlikely that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat who succeeded Blackwell, a Republican, will ask for reconsideration.

She said a problem with the web-based aspect of paid signature gatherers having to pre-register and do their training online was that a group like the church group in Cleveland barely had one computer, and that the inequality between wealthy groups and poor groups was unfair. Moreover, she said these government imposed requirements only applied to paid workers, and that the definition of payment in the law was equally vague. “We appreciate keeping track of people in the state,” she said, but “requiring pre-registration isn’t necessary.”

Finally, Paradis said that given one of the judge’s slap downs regarding the requirement that a signature gatherer must disclose their name, address and employer on the voter registration form, the Ohio legislature would need to make that change for that provision to become applicable again.

“The Law got shut down because it’s a bad law,” she said. “We’re happy to work with them to address state needs.”

PROJECT VOTE

Speaking to ePluribus Media's Ohio News Bureau from his home in Salem, Oregon, Michael Slater of Project Vote, another of the plaintiff groups, said he was “very happy with the permanent injunction” and said O’Malley’s decision was not surprising.

“This gives us certainty going forward in registration drives,” he said. “We hope the Ohio legislature doesn’t want to take another misguided step in registering voters because that would be unfair harassment.”

Slater said Project Vote has some “pretty ambitious plans” for voter registration drives in five Ohio cities he hopes will net over 100,000 new registered voters. He said their Ohio partner, Acorn, has already started voter registration drives.

Slater pointed to a report Project Vote has completed regarding the widening disparity between whites and blacks as reasons for he and his partner groups to launch more voter registration drives. He attributes this widening disparity to mobility rates among lower-income Americans and people of color. He said younger voters, who have become swept up in the presidential contest, especially for Sen. Barack Obama, are the most mobile.

He was clear to say that the signature canvasers Project Vote users are paid, not volunteers. “We don’t have registrars,” he said, “We help people complete a one-page form, that’s what we do.” He said the government then reviews the submitted information and determines the eligibility of the signatory for voting privileges.

“My hope is they realize they overstepped their boundaries with their effort,” Slater said of Ohio’s latest attempt to reform Ohio election law. “They stepped on people’s constitutional rights, and I hope they don’t go in that direction again.”

He thinks Ohioans are experiencing election fatigue, and that its time to start testing the changes instead of “creating more controversial legislation targeting groups they don’t like.” He said people want confidence that their votes will count, and that a legitimate concern is about partisanship, competency and to the need to have an election that “is fair and transparent and not intended to gain an advantage.”

Kevin DeWine was contacted by ONB to comment on O’Malleys ruling but did not return a call in time for this article.

CASE BACKGROUND

For more background on this case, go here and here.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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only applies to a certain demographic ... at least in the tiny minds of the GOP.

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turning the corner..or should I say turning over one pebble of GOP sand at a time!

Paradis said that given one of the judge’s slap downs regarding the requirement that a signature gatherer must disclose their name, address and employer on the voter registration form, the Ohio legislature would need to make that change for that provision to become applicable again.