COURT ORDERS RELIEF FOR PURGED OHIO VOTERS IN TIME FOR THE NOVEMBER ELECTION

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered emergency relief that will protect the right to vote for countless Ohioans who were unlawfully purged from the voter rolls.

The Court noted that Ohio, for years, has been purging voters from the registration rolls using notices that likely violate the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”). It ordered Ohio to count ballots cast by certain Ohio residents purged pursuant to a practice known as the Supplemental Process, which results in removals when a voter has not cast a ballot or engaged in other election activity for a period of six years.

“Today’s ruling will allow Ohio voters—who would have been unlawfully disenfranchised—to cast their ballot this November,” said Stuart Naifeh, Senior Counsel at Demos. “In a state where elections have been won or lost by only one vote, protecting the right of eligible voters to have their voices heard will uphold the fundamental principles on which our democracy is supposed to operate.”

The relief ordered, known as the APRI Exception, requires that individuals who have been purged have their provisional ballots counted if the voter (1) appears in person to vote during early voting or on Election Day, (2) was removed from the registration rolls in or since 2011, and (3) did not become ineligible to vote for another reason subsequent to the time they were purged. Exceptions to the in-person voting requirement exist for uniformed, overseas, sick, and disabled voters who are unable to make it to the polls.

“Black, low-income, and other traditionally marginalized voters have been disproportionately removed under Ohio’s purge practice,” said Andre Washington, President of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI). “Illegally removing these individuals from the voter rolls and disenfranchising them prevents Ohio from creating a truly inclusive and representative democracy—one where all its citizens have an equal chance to make their voices heard.”

“This has been a hard-fought victory for Ohio voters,” said Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. “We are thrilled that the Sixth Circuit responded to this emergency, and ruled to allow unlawfully-purged voters to vote this November. Turnout next week could break historic records. This decision allows eligible voters to participate. This is a bright moment for democracy.”

The relief ordered does not end the Sixth Circuit’s review of the case. The Court is slated to consider the full merits of whether Ohio violated the NVRA’s notice requirements.

“Today’s decision will protect the right of housing-insecure persons to cast a ballot in November and have their votes counted,” said Chris Knestrick, Director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH). “We will continue to fight to ensure that no person is unlawfully removed from the voter rolls and denied their fundamental right to vote.”   

Four Victories and a Loss

Over the last month the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has had a hign number of victories both in court and in public policy.  Last week we did have one setback in the loss of the lawsuit against the State of Ohio in their massive purge of voters from the registration database, but homeless people did see a series of successes this spring. 

First, we won the voter lawsuit against the Secretary of State regarding the thousands of voters who made minor errors on the provisional or absentee ballot outside envelope and had their ballots thrown away.  These voters may have used cursive instead of printing or had transposed one digit of a zip code and their ballot did not count.  They tried to participate in the democratic process and the State of Ohio told them that because they did not meticulously copy their information on the absentee ballot they failed. 

Most of the time the information was on the other side of the envelope printed by the County Board of Election, but it still did not count.  The state was not claiming that the voter could not be identified or was attempting to vote fraudulently.  They were just saying it is not that big of a problem that thousands of voters were disenfranchised.  The federal court disagreed, but the State almost immediately appealed.  We shall see. 

Victory number two was in early May with the hearing held by the Cuyahoga County Council Health and Human Services committee on the Community Women’s Shelter administered by Frontline Services.  It was a victory that the Council had even had this gathering and was able to hear directly from the women after years of allowing this shelter to get so out of control.  We have posted the video from the hearing and the transcript on our website here

The women who participate in the Homeless Congress had asked for twelve items to improve the shelter by September 2016 or they would recommend a new shelter provider step in to replace Frontline.  After months of no reply, we got the hearing.  At the hearing, we asked for four out of the twelve things that could be done immediately to improve the shelter.  Those included no discharges that are not in writing, no denying of bed rest orders, five days to respond to grievances in writing and termination or transfer of the staff member with the largest number of grievances at the shelter.   This final action was taken in June, and the women celebrated.   We will continue to press all the issues at the shelter and Council President Dan Brady has agreed to a committee which will report back to the Homeless Congress. 

We worked with the ACLU to assure that homeless people were not displaced or subjected to unreasonable searches during the Republican National Convention in July.   We won a series of compromises from the City of Cleveland this week in federal court.  One judge granted us much of what we asked for and the City immediately appealed.  We then agreed to mediation in lieu of a protracted appeal and worked out a compromise this week.  We will have a more detailed description of the compromise on our website.

Finally, last year West Side Catholic Center was facing extremely onerous restrictions on their mail service by their local carrier and his supervisor.   One of the many valuable services offered by the Catholic Center on the near West Side is a place for those who live outside or move regularly was the ability to receive mail.  This was extremely valuable for voting purposes and getting into housing or finding employment.  NEOCH staff felt this was one of the most critical essential services in the community, and were especially concerned if this service were to disappear.  After the agency was unable to get a satisfactory response from the Postal Service, we enlisted the help of Senator Sherrod Brown’s office.  After some confusing research and reading huge manuals, we got a meeting with senior officials from the local Postal Service.  They agreed that this was a valuable service that should continue and admitted that the carrier had been incorrect in his interpretation of the postal rules. 

We will continue to push for a reversal of the purge lawsuit, but homeless people in Cuyahoga County have had a pretty good spring with some progress.  We did hear that the purge case will get an expedited review by the appeals court

Brian Davis

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