Saturday, September 02, 2006

Judge throws out voter registration rules

Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Volunteers and paid canvassers in voter registration drives across Ohio can go ahead with their efforts over the Labor Day weekend without concern about new state rules, a judge said.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley issued an order from the bench Friday, saying she recognized how important voter registration efforts tend to be over the holiday weekend, and immediately set aside several provisions of a recent Ohio election reform law. A detailed written order is expected next week.

The rules seem to set up barriers against registering voters and appear to violate the First Amendment, the judge said.

A coalition of voter advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers had sued the state, arguing the regulations should be thrown out. The plaintiffs claimed the rules were intimidating and impaired their registration drives, particularly in low-income and minority areas, because the rules carry potential criminal penalties.

"Anybody who even reasonably helps someone else register to vote could face criminal prosecution," O'Malley said. "Anybody would be chilled in these circumstances."

Voters should ignore references to criminal penalties on the registration forms effective immediately, the judge said Friday. She gave the secretary of state's office five days to remove references to the rules and penalties on its Web site.

"Voting rights in Ohio have just been emancipated and now, our goal is to replace fear with enthusiasm," said the Rev. Tony Minor, one of the plaintiffs who has led voter registration efforts in the city's black community.

The rules required those who register people to vote to submit the forms in person or by mail to the local board of elections. They also mandated online training for those who are paid to register voters.

The state said the rules were needed to guard against voter fraud and did not stop anyone from registering to vote.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor, plans to comply with the order and not appeal, said Larry James, an attorney for Blackwell's office. Blackwell had said previously he had to abide by the intent of Ohio law.

"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.

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."

She said the training requirements would seem to add to administrative burdens and that the registration process generally is not complicated and is self-explanatory.

The ruling applies only to the parts of the election law dealing with voter registration. The rest of the law was not affected.

O'Malley's order comes just days after a federal judge in Miami declared a Florida voter registration law unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz said penalties for violations threatened free speech rights and said political parties were unfairly exempted.


Strike up another one for the good guys!

"We were ready to get our job done regardless of what the rules of play were" - Ken Blackwell, Republican candidate for governor

Call me flip but I don't think one should refer to voting law as 'rules of play'. I suppose people with little or no respect of such things have no qualm doing so.