Federal Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Ohio Voting Law

October 5, 2006

For Immediate Release
Thursday, October 5, 2006

Contact Information
Justin Levitt, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 992-8158

Susan Lehman, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 998-6318

Frances Lalas, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 998-6746

Federal Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Ohio Voting Law

Voting Rights Lawsuit Restores All Eligible Citizens Right to be Treated Equally

Cleveland, OH — Yesterday, a federal court barred Ohio election officials from enforcing a discriminatory provision of a new state law. The provision allowed poll workers to challenge a voter seeking to cast a ballot by inquiring whether the voter was a naturalized citizen, and if so, to require the voter to provide documentary proof of naturalization. This law would have discouraged eligible naturalized citizens from voting by placing an unfair burden on their right to vote—a burden not shared by other citizens.

"Judge Christopher Boyko rightly blocked a shameful attempt to create a class of second-rate citizens," said Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Center is co-counsel in the case with the ACLU of Ohio, the ACLU Voting Rights Project, ACLU-cooperating attorneys Subodh Chandra and Professor Daniel P. Tokaji, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "All eligible citizens will now stand on an equal footing at the polling place this November."

At issue in the case, Boustani v. Blackwell, was whether poll workers and election officials could require documentation of naturalization from naturalized citizens while placing no similar burden on native-born citizens. Under the new provision, if naturalized citizens could not produce such proof at the poll site, they could cast a provisional ballot, but they would have to return to the Board of Elections within 10 days with their naturalization papers in order for that ballot to be counted.

The judge had sharp words for the requirement, contrasting the discriminatory provision with the privileges of full citizenship he had promised to new Americans at a naturalization ceremony just days before. The different requirements for naturalized and native-born citizens, according to the Court, created the unlawful potential for disenfranchising eligible citizens for "not looking quite American."

Plaintiffs also argued that the documentation requirement functioned as a poll tax for naturalized citizens who no longer have their original naturalization papers or who have since changed their names. "New naturalization documents can cost more than $200," explained Justin Levitt, Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center. "That's a significant amount for most voters, and unaffordable for many. More important, it represents an illegal condition on every citizens fundamental right to vote."

In a preliminary order, the court directed Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to take certain steps to inform election officials and the public that the unconstitutional law is not to interfere with the voting rights of naturalized citizens in the upcoming general election on November 7. A full written opinion will follow.

For more information about the case, click here.