Commentary by Brian Davis
“Today was a good day for democracy,” plaintiffs’ attorney Subodh Chandra said to a local blogger named Yellow Dog Sammy. After a marathon session of negotiations with the State of Ohio, attorney Chandra, The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the Service Employee International Union and homeless people struck an agreement which would allow everyone to cast a vote and have that vote counted.
NEOCH and SEIU in Columbus filed suit in October against the Secretary of State Ken Blackwell over the requirement for Ohio voters to show identification before casting a ballot. Many homeless people have problems keeping identification, because of theft and the constant requirement to move around. It is also unlikely that homeless people will have identification that corresponds to their shelter address. Local homeless service providers said that between 20 to 30 percent of homeless population do not have any identification. Members of various homeless coalitions throughout the state found a wide variety of interpretations of the law requiring ID, which meant homeless people might have been disenfranchised from voting depending on their voting precinct’s interpretation of the law.
Three homeless and low-income people went down to Columbus one week before the November election to fight for the rights of all voters in Ohio. They woke up a 5 a.m. to drive to Columbus and waited for 11 hours while lawyers negotiated. Pam Denton, Micky Trammell and Cornell Bishop all made the trip and sat in a jury room for hours waiting for a hearing to start while the State of Ohio negotiated with the team of lawyers representing NEOCH/SEIU.
Pam is a graduate of Spelman College and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the last days of segregation. Her cousin was one of the children killed in the bombings. She told the lawyers that she was surprised that Ohio was doing what Bull Connor was trying to do in the South. She is a very strong woman who volunteers, and had a very stable life in the suburbs. Her driver’s license expired and she had no address to put on a new license. Both Bishop and Trammell were veterans of the United States military, and had very difficult issues with regard to proving their identity.
The issues were broader than just homeless people. Many housed individuals were also disenfranchised by the identification requirements. There were students who had a university ID that did not display their dormitory address. There were students who had their “home” address in some other state, but had in the past registered to vote in Ohio since they lived in Ohio for 9 months of the year and were in Ohio during the elections. Then there were those who had sent in an absentee ballot, but had copied the wrong number from their driver’s license. All of these issues were clarified by the settlement and it also clarified which votes would actually be counted. The bottom line was that everyone who attempted to vote and went to the correct precinct would have their vote counted.
The consent order also requires that those provisional votes that were in limbo be counted. Thousands of absentee ballots that were in doubt because county boards of elections were confused over the law or were inconsistently applying the voter-ID requirements would be counted. One person mentioned as a disenfranchised voter was Henry Eckhart who had completed his absentee ballot incorrectly. According to Chandra, “The Columbus lawyer and longtime public servant voted for 52 years without any issues. [In October], Mr. Eckhart, like many others trying to deal with the new law, wrote down on his absentee-ballot form the larger, more prominent number over the photograph on his driver’s license rather than the smaller driver’s license number. After voting began, some counties decided they were going to honor ballots like his; others were not. Mid-election, Secretary of State Blackwell issued a directive that all such ballots, and countless others cast under the cloud of electoral confusion, not be counted.”
Chandra, again commenting to Yellow Dog Sammy said, “We achieved a consent order that contains major victories for voters.” In particular, the consent order “ensures that thousands of Ohioans whose votes were at risk because of a vague statute, compounded by the secretary of state’s failure to give directives (followed by a wrong and overly restrictive directive on the eve of the hearing), will be counted.”
The settlement clarified the language of the original law, and standardized the rules. Anyone who showed up with either no identification or had a problem with their ID would be given a provisional ballot. The big difference was that the voter did not have to show up 10 days after the election to prove anything or sign an affidavit. If the voter had a social security number, they just needed to provide the last four digits of that number and sign the book as they normally did, and they would get a provisional ballot that would not be challenged later.
This is not a partisan issue either, because both Sherrod Brown (D) and Bob Taft (R) worked very hard as Secretaries of State to get every homeless person to participate in democracy. They both outlined the rules for homeless people to register and then vote and they both worked to reduce the barriers to voting. Bob Taft was one of the first Secretaries of State in the United States to implement rules for homeless people registering to vote. The Taft rules were models adopted by many other states and pushed by advocates. Ken Blackwell had the word “homeless” only one time on the Secretary of State website. He never attempted to clarify the rules or assure that any changes in the law took homeless people into account.
In what many commentators have identified as retaliation, the State of Ohio filed contempt of court charges against Chandra for informing the local Election Boards about the clarification of the rules. This idea gained traction with the Cleveland Plain Dealer even though the argument for any violation of the law was tenuous at best. Informing a public entity of the clarification of the law, as was done with another lawsuit (that time with the blessing of the Secretary of State’s office), did not cross the line according to Chandra. The court reprimanded Chandra, but did not find him in contempt of court.
House Bill 3, the law that changed the registration and voting process, was not warmly received by Ohio courts. The registration rules were struck down; the provisions that allowed poll workers to question the immigration status of voters was ruled unconstitutional, and finally, the identification requirements were clarified by the courts. Activists hope that the legislature takes a more studied view of voting reform to work to enfranchise as many voters as possible in Ohio.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 79 December 2006-January 2007, Cleveland Ohio.