A group of civic organizations filed a lawsuit today seeking to overturn restrictions on voter registration in the state of Ohio. The requirements laid out by the state drastically limit the ability of civic groups to register new voters and threaten individual registration workers with felony charges for minor mistakes handling forms. The rules will limit voter registration, unnecessarily exclude eligible voters from the election process, and suppress the vote in Ohio.

The complaint filed today in United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio, raises several concerns with House Bill 3 and the rules and procedures set forth by the Secretary of State, including:

• In the past, citizens working to register voters were able to turn in the completed forms to a civic group or church that would review the forms for accuracy, turn them into the registrar, and follow up later to make sure the voter was actually registered. Now, workers collecting voter registration forms would be forbidden from doing that and would be subject to felony charges if the forms were to be handed in late or not directly to registrars' offices.

• Rules that require online training discriminate against low income citizens who don’t have computers and some voter registration groups and churches which may have extremely limited access to computers.

• The same online-only requirement prevents some disabled registration workers from being certified. Because no alternative is offered, many otherwise qualified volunteers would be prevented from registering new voters. Representatives of the groups also noted that due to technical errors, workers who have attempted to take the online training have been unable to complete the program.

Ohio ACORN said the group was assisting about 5,000 people a week in completing voter registration forms, until Blackwell's restrictions went into effect, nearly halting the groups' non-partisan voter engagement drive.

“Secretary of State Blackwell's unfair and arbitrary rules are standing in the way of many Ohioans who want to exercise their right to vote,” said Mary Keith, State Board Chair for Ohio ACORN. “ACORN has traditionally done the work of encouraging voter registration and participation at the grassroots--registering thousands of people in low and moderate income neighborhoods. Today we are turning to the courts to see that the ability of people from all walks of life to participate in the civic life of our state and our country is protected.”

The rules violate the Voting Rights Act or 1965, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and protections contained in the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

"There's no question that the restrictions we're seeking to overturn will damage elections in Ohio," said Wendy Weiser, counsel for plaintiffs and deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "If left unchanged, these unnecessary voter registration rules will result in fewer eligible voters being able to go to the polls."

“We work hard to bring in volunteers and we can’t afford to pay our workers a lot of money,” said Reverend Tony Minor, pastor of Communities of Faith Assemblies Church, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Every hurdle the state throws up makes it harder to do that. That means fewer workers and fewer new voter registrations – and that means less democracy for Ohio.” The church works to help register voters in Cleveland through a program of People For the American Way Foundation, which is also a plaintiff and co-counsel in the lawsuit.

"The interpretation of these rules has all but halted voter registration in Ohio,” said Donita Judge, a staff attorney at Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization and co-counsel in the lawsuit. “We do not believe the intent of these rules is to criminalize well-meaning civic activist who assist with voter registration."

Ohio is one of several states that have attempted to limit the effectiveness of voter registration programs in the wake of the 2004 election cycle, when millions of eligible new voters were added to the rolls through the work of nonpartisan registration drives. In May, the League of Women Voters of Florida asked a federal judge to overturn a new state law that creates a punishing and complicated tier of deadlines and fines.

Plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit include Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN), People For the American Way Foundation, Communities of Faith Assemblies Church, Project Vote, and Common Cause Ohio. The groups have all planned voter registration drives in coming months that are now threatened by Blackwell’s rules. The case may be referenced as Project Vote v. Blackwell.

Plaintiffs are represented by the law firm of Perkins Coie, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the McTigue Law Group, Project Vote and Advancement Project.

For more information, please contact Brian Mellor.
Copyright 2006 Project Vote a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization