CINCINNATI (TDB) -- The Bush Administration has now intervened on the side of thousands of low-income Ohioans in a 14-month-old federal voting rights lawsuit. It contends former GOP officials -- including ex-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell -- ignored a 1993 law intended to boost voter turnout. The law requires state public welfare offices to act as voter registration centers.
A friend-of-the-court-brief submitted to a federal appeals court in Ohio by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division asserts Blackwell had a clear duty to ensure voter registration opportunities were available. "Because the secretary of state is 'responsible for coordination of state responsibilities' under the NVRA (National Voter Registration Act), 42 U.S.C. 1973gg-8, the secretary is therefore liable for, at a minimum, coordinating the efforts . . . to come into compliance with the NVRA. The district court thus erred in dismissing the secretary of state as a party."
The brief is not available online, but is open for public inspection at the federal courthouse in Cincinnati.
A federal judge in Cleveland ruled in August that Blackwell and other state officials had no role in the case and tossed it out of court. Blackwell was the 2006 Republican nominee for govenor, a race he lost to Ted Strickland. Blackwell also was on the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign steering committee, a post that critics saw as conflicting with his duties as secretary of state and Ohio top elections official.
The NVRA is a 1993 federal law enacted to encourage voter registration and turnout in elections. It is commonly known at the Motor-Voter law because its says Americans can register when they get licenses or tags. They also can register as voters in state public assistance offices. The lawsuit claims Blackwell and former State Jobs and Family Services Director Barbara Reily failed miserably at enforcing those requirements.
The Justice Department's 19-page brief was filed earlier this month in the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. A federal judge in Cleveland dismissed the lawsuit on Aug. 9, 2007, saying that Blackwell and Reily had no liability because county officials control public assistances offices in Ohio. The alleged violations took place between 2002 and 2006.
Federal lawyers contend state officials cannot avoid "responsibilities under the NVRA (National Voter Rights Act) by delegating certain tasks to its local offices. This conclusion is underscored by the fact that, in enacting the NVRA, Congress is presumed to have known that states have ultimate responsibility for adminsitering many public assistance programs.
They said to state officials cannot claim local control "as a shield to avoid compliance with duties imposed by the NVRA. A contrary ruling, if advanced to its logical conclusion, wuld allow designated statewide agencies to avoid their NVRA obligations through delegation and decentralization -- a result Congress could not have intended."
The caption on the appeals court case is Carrie Harkless, et al v. Jennifer Brunner, et al. Nos. 07-3829, 074165. Brunner, a Democrat, became Ohio's secretary of state in January after Blackwell left office. The alleged violations took place during the years Blackwell was in office.