Ohio2006 Blog

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Wednesday, August 2

Atty Gen: Dann (D) Files Amicus Brief Against Voter Registration Restrictions

This morning I went to a press conference on the steps of the new Carl Stokes Federal Courthouse in Cleveland, where attorney general candidate State Sen. Marc Dann (D-Youngstown), accompanied by Senate Minority Leader C.J. Prentiss (D-Cleveland Heights), announced the filing of an amicus ("friend of the court") brief in support of a federal lawsuit filed on July 6 by Project Vote and four other organizations against Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell (R-Cincinnati), challenging the constitutionality of both the recent elections legislation known as H.B. 3 and Blackwell's administrative rulings interpreting the law and imposing criminal penalties. These provisions have imposed severe restrictions on voter registration drives by organizations (in particular, requiring that persons who collect voter registration signatures must submit the forms directly to Board of Elections officials in person, and within a stated time limit, or face felony charges), with the effect of suppressing the vote of persons likely to support Democrats. The amicus brief was prepared and signed by Dann as counsel for 31 members of the Ohio General Assembly, who together represent more than four million Ohioans. The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. O'Malley, and preliminary injunctive relief against enforcement of H.B. 3 and Blackwell's implementing rules has been requested. A ruling on that request could come within days.

The above shot shows Senators Prentiss and Dann on the courthouse steps, with a microphone from public radio station WCPN in the lower left. In the brief, Dann argues that the new rules "violate core political speech rights by imposing undue procedural burdens on voting rights and by imposing vague and confusing standards subject to criminal penalties." As he described it to me before the event began, there was no case made to the legislature that voter fraud is a serious problem, so therefore there is no compelling state interest as is required to support legislative retrictions on fundamental rights like voting. Even if it is assumed that a compelling interest exists, the law and Blackwell's implementing rules are still invalid because there are far less restrictive alternatives available to protect that interest. He also argues in the brief that H.B. 3 and the implementing rules are unconstitutionally vague, and consequently have an impermissible chilling effect on voter registration efforts.

In this shot, Prentiss and Dann answer questions from Anastasia Pantsios of the Cleveland Free Times. "The rationale the Republicans, including Blackwell, used to justify the bill and the rules we are now fighting--voter fraud--is an absolute red herring and a fantasy. In fact, the Akron Beacon Journal wrote during the debate over the bill that there was 'no evidence of organized, systemic voter fraud' in the 2004 election," Dann said. "Which leads to the logical conclusion that H.B. 3 and these rules have nothing to do with stopping voter fraud or implementing the Help America Vote Act and everything to do with voter suppression."

Asked if she thinks the vote-suppressing effect of Blackwell's rulings was purposeful, Prentiss said "Of course it was purposeful! HAVA [the federal Help America Vote Act] was designed to make voting simple. Blackwell took it as an opportunity to confuse the hell out of people." She also brought up Blackwell's history of changing his rulings quickly and often as creating additional confusion, as when he first required and then backed off requiring heavyweight paper stock for voter registration forms (even though the form is downloadable from the Secretary of State web site, which means that the forms printed out would probably not be in compliance). Dann said that in H.B. 3 the Republicans and Blackwell are solving a problem that doesn't exist, and that the law and Blackwell's interpretations of it are "a deliberate attempt to suppress certain voters." Although the constitutional issues with the legislation are serious, he said, the issues with the rulings are even more serious. With these provisions, "we are bucking a 200 year tradition of encouraging participation in the election process." The court should therefore issue a temporary injunction to "stop Ken Blackwell in his tracks."

Prentiss asked of the Republicans rhetorically, "Are you saying to me that my church cannot have a voter registration drive? They have always had one for every year I've been alive, and I'm 65 years or age." It is a tradition in the African American community "to go out as an organization and do massive voter registration as an organization--and turn in the voter registration forms as an organization." Dann remarked that the provisions they are challenging "are not that different from Jim Crow laws" because they are an effort to suppress voting by African Americans.

"Why now?," Prentiss asked. "An appropriate response to the debacle of 2004 would be to look at the numbers of voting machines, or look at why votes weren't counted just because the voter was at the wrong table in the polling place," she continued, "but the Republicans chose the direction of imposing penalties on voter registration." What the rules mean is that if there is a church voter registration drive,a Mrs. Jones has to commit under threat of criminal penalties to arrange transportation and go in person to the Board of Elections to turn in voter registration forms, not just turn them over to her pastor. This has the effect of crippling church voter registration drives.

"The truth is that while Ken Blackwell talks about making voting easier, he consistently takes steps that make it more difficult," Dann said. "His intent and that of the other Republican leaders in the state is clear: they want to suppress voter turnout in a critical election year. That is why they rebuffed every attempt we made to improve the bill as it moved through the legislature and why they voted to approve these oppressive rules over the strenuous objections of the Democratic members of the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which approved them on a strict party line vote."

In a separate conversation, Dann pointed out that H.B. 3 also has the effect of authorizing the attorney general to engage in direct prosecution of voting fraud, if the county authorities decline to prosecute. The statute of limitations for voting fraud is six years, so if Dann is sworn in as attorney general in January 2007 he would have the power to convene grand juries and issue subpoenas to investigate voting fraud situations going back to January 2001. While careful not to pre-judge the criminality of any specific conduct, he listed as possible situations for such investigation the allocation of voting machines on a racial basis, the requirement of heavyweight paper for voting registration forms (with its implied intent to suppress voting), and allegations that computer chips in voting machines were manipulated. In other words, electing Dann in 2006 is the first step in holding Blackwell and others accountable for the rampant voter suppression and election irregularities of the 2002 and 2004 elections.


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