Joe Guillen, The Plain Dealer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than 11,000 people in Cuyahoga County have registered to vote this year through public-assistance programs as part of a renewed effort to involve poor people in elections throughout Ohio.

 

Statewide, more than 100,000 applicants for public assistance have signed up to vote through the first six months of this year — a significant surge compared with past years. In Cuyahoga, the number of low-income individuals who filled out registration forms already is higher than the last two years combined.

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The increase stems from a legal settlement reached in November. Ohio had been inconsistent in following a federal law that requires voter registration forms to be provided to applicants for welfare programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. The settlement led to a new set of rules that took effect in January to make sure the state follows the law.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to make signing up to vote easier for all people. The act also requires states to provide voter registration forms to people signing up for driver’s licenses.

But since the act took effect, states have focused more on tying voter registration to driver’s license applications than to public-assistance programs.

As a result, the county offices where needy people sign up for public assistance often did not offer voter registration materials as required.

The Cuyahoga County Employment and Family Services’ downtown office, for example, did not have any voter registration applications in a 2005 spot check, according to the legal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, that led to last year’s settlement. Similar checks in Lorain, Lake and Franklin counties also turned up no registration forms.

The county offices act as an extension of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which administers many of the welfare programs covered by the federal voter registration law.

By ignoring sections of the voter registration law, Ohio was denying voting rights to thousands of residents, said Nicole Kovite, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote, a voting rights group that participated in the litigation.

“It serves a very important purpose in equalizing our democracy,” Kovite said of the voter registration act. “I think people can see really what we’ve been missing.”

The more than 100,000 people who signed up to vote in Ohio through June are nearly double the annual average in 2007 and 2008, according to the Election Assistance Commission’s most recent survey of states’ voter registration statistics.

Kovite said Ohio did not have a structure in place to make sure its public assistance offices were following the law.

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Story Compliments Of The Plain Dealer

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