Federal judge throws out voter registration rules
CLEVELAND (AP) -- A federal judge threw out new state rules governing voter registration drives Friday, saying they appear to violate the First Amendment and hurt efforts to sign up new voters.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley issued an order from the bench immediately halting the enforcement of the registration rules. She said she planned to issue a detailed written order sometime next week.
A coalition of voter advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers sued the state, asking Judge O'Malley to throw out the regulations, which they claimed were intimidating and impaired their registration drives, particularly in low-income and minority areas, because the rules carry potential criminal penalties.
The state said the rules were needed to guard against voter fraud.
Judge O'Malley said she would have liked to have months to study the case but felt she had to make a ruling Friday ahead of the Labor Day weekend, which is traditionally a heavy voter registration drive time.
The judge said that, in light of her ruling, voters should ignore the references to the criminal penalties on forms used to sign up new voters. She gave the secretary of state's office five days to remove references to the rules and penalties on its Web site.
Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor, plans to comply with the order and not challenge it, said Larry James, an attorney for Blackwell's office who was in court Friday.
"We are glad this matter is cleared up and we are prepared to move forward with the voting registration process," James said.
Blackwell told The Associated Press that he didn't expect political fallout from the decision. "Our campaign efforts were indifferent to the judge's decision. We were ready to get our job done regardless of what the rules of play were," he said.
"The Legislature passed the law and we were ready to administer it in accordance with their expressed intentions. The court has now amended the law and we're prepared to administer it within those clarifications and the amended law."
After the judge finished her remarks, the Rev. Tony Minor, pastor of Community of Faith Assemblies in Cleveland, expressed delight.
"Voting rights in Ohio have just been emancipated and now, our goal is to replace fear with enthusiasm," said Minor, one of the plaintiffs who has led voter registration efforts in the city's black community.
In the lawsuit, filed in July, the plaintiffs argued that criminal penalties for violating voter registration rules could deter people from canvassing. The law requires each person who registers voters to return the forms either in person or by mail to the local board of elections.
In the past, a canvasser could return forms to a church or institution promoting a voter registration drive. Those groups could forward the forms to the local elections board.
The lawsuit also challenges online training required for those who will be paid for registering voters, saying it's too difficult for churches and groups that don't have access to computers. Blackwell's office responded by offering training materials by mail if requested.
The groups challenging the law include Project Vote, Communities of Faith Assemblies Church, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Common Cause Ohio, People for the American Way Foundation and American Association of People with Disabilities.
Assistant Ohio Attorney General Richard Coglianese told Judge O'Malley earlier Friday that some of the concerns outlined in the lawsuit are part of a comprehensive election reform bill that reorganized Ohio law to bring it into compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act.
He said the issues before the judge dealt with improvements to the registration process to help election officials deal with false, late or questionable registrations.
Judge O'Malley discounted Ohio's claim that the rules are designed to guard against fraud. She also said the Ohio registration rules seem to go against the spirit of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 that government should "assist in reducing barriers to registration wherever possible."
The Ohio law creating new registration requirements "is insufficient because it is not logical. Those who would work to make sure those who can vote do vote will have a less likelihood to commit fraud," she said.
She said there isn't much point to training requirements, adding that the registration process generally is not complicated and is self-explanatory. She said the requirements would seem to add to administrative burdens.
The ruling applies only to the parts of the election law dealing with voter registration. The rest of the law was not affected.
On Monday in Miami, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz declared a new Florida voter registration law unconstitutional. She said penalties for violations threatened free speech rights and said political parties were unfairly exempted.
Some plaintiffs said they believed the two court rulings send a message nationwide about how states should regulate the way voters are registered.
"We hope other states learn the lesson that suppressing voter registration is not an option," said Jehmu Greene, national director for Project Vote.
The O'Malley opinion following so closely on the ruling in Florida could be viewed as "a national trend of courts rejecting unreasonable burdens on third-party voter registration drives," said Renee Paradis, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, which helped plaintiffs in the Ohio case.
Elliot Mincbert, legal director for People for the American Way, said the group planned to ramp up its voter registration efforts and hoped other nonprofit groups would do the same.
"The judge recognized that these rules were severely restricting the fundamental right of people to register and to vote," he said.