NVRI: National Voting Rights Institute

NVRI fights to enfranchise U.S. citizens, through lawsuits in many states and jurisdictions regarding absentee ballots, provisional voting, candidate filing fees, public access to contribution records, and enforcement of campaign spending laws, among other things. Following are some of the most recent cases, filings, letters, positions and other actions we've taken. In addition, you can find more materials by clicking here.

NVRI Joins Call for Paper Ballots Standard (December 18, 2006)

NVRI joined a coalition of organizations urging Congress to enact legislation protecting the accuracy of elections by requiring paper ballots. The letter, signed by 37 organizations, includes the following statement: "We, the undersigned non-partisan election integrity organizations, strongly urge you, as a first order of business in the 110th Congress, to enact new federal legislation to protect the integrity of our elections. While there are many areas of concern for any such legislation, none is more essential to the accuracy of our elections and the confidence among our electorate than for there to be a paper ballot for every vote cast. Not a paper "trail" or a paper "record," but a paper ballot." To read it, click here.

Repair the problems with Ohio’s elections systems, says renewed NVRI claim (September 13, 2006)

On September 13, NVRI and its co-counsel in League of Women Voters of Ohio v. Blackwell filed this brief with the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, urging the court to affirm a lower court’s ruling that our lawsuit seeking fundamental reform of Ohio’s dysfunctional election process is entitled to proceed. The lawsuit, filed last year on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Toledo-Lucas County, and more than a dozen Ohio citizens, alleges that Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, Governor Bob Taft, and their predecessors have failed to protect the fundamental rights of eligible Ohio voters to register, vote, and have their votes counted, as required by the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The lawsuit does not challenge the results of any past elections, but instead seeks to bring about changes necessary to protect the rights of Ohio voters in future elections. Filed in federal court in Toledo, the complaint chronicles gross deficiencies in Ohio’s election administration over more than three decades, including widespread problems with the voter registration system, the absentee and provisional ballot processes, the training of poll workers, the organization of polling places and precincts, and the allocation of voting machines. The relief sought would require the state to repair problems at all stages of the electoral process that have disenfranchised and overly burdened Ohio voters and made the ability to register and vote vary widely from county to county.

NVRI is partnering in this case with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Proskauer Rose LLP, Arnold & Porter LLP, People for the American Way Foundation, and Connelly, Jackson & Collier LLP.

NVRI files Brief in "vote-swapping case" from 2000 Presidential Election (August 7, 2006)

On August 4, NVRI filed its brief in the 9th Circuit U.S .Court of Appeals in the long-delayed "voter swapper" case. The case arose during the 2000 election campaign, when California’s Secretary of State shut down voter-swapping websites, claiming they involved buying votes. NVRI and the ACLU of Southern California quickly filed a lawsuit alleging that these threats constituted a blatantly illegal prior restraint and impermissibly chilled the free speech and political association of persons who wished to use the Internet to discuss concerted voting strategies. After many delays, the case will finally be heard. We expect a decision sometime next year -- just in time for 2008. To read the brief, click here. To read a blog about the case by NVRI Managing Attorney Brenda Wright, check the Democracy blog at the Democracy Dispatches website, run by our partner Demos.

Broad Coalition Seeks Federal Court Intervention to Assure HAVA Compliance in New York (May 18, 2006)
NVRI joined a broad coalition of voter-eligible citizens as well as disability, civic and civil rights organizations in filing a motion to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice against New York State and its election officials. This coalition seeks an injunction requiring the State to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and interrelated New York law, to submit an effective compliance plan with the court, and to ensure a legal implementation process that will vindicate the rights of all eligible voters, including those with disabilities and limited English proficiency. Read a press release about the lawsuit here.

For further details, click here to read the Memorandum of Law in support this intervention, and click here to read the proposed Complaint to be filed by the intervenors.

NVRI and Others Notify Ohio of NVRA Failures and Threaten Litigation (May 18, 2006)
NVRI, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, and Dechert LLP sent a letter to Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, notifying him of the state's violation of the public assistance provisions of the National Voter Registration Act. (Read the letter here.) The letter, sent on behalf of the Ohio chapter of ACORN, is intended to provide the Secretary of State with a final opportunity to bring Ohio into compliance before the initiation of litigation to enforce the law. Click here to read a press release announcing this action.

Judge's Decision in Favor of Major Donor Cries Out for Supreme Court Review (February 3, 2006)
NVRI joined a coalition effort - led by the Brennan Center - asking the Supreme Court to review a case where an Illinois judge helped overturn a $450 million judgment, in favor of one of his biggest campaign contributors.

Here's an excerpt from the Brennan Center's press release about the case, Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co.:

"The case involves an Illinois Supreme Court justice who declined to recuse himself, and then ruled for one of his biggest campaign contributors. The brief was filed on behalf of 12 organizations committed to ensuring fair and impartial courts.

The petition for review of Avery is the fallout from the most expensive state judicial campaign in United States history, the 2004 race for Illinois Supreme Court justice. Illinois Appellate Judge Gordon Maag and then-circuit Judge Lloyd Karmeier raised a total of approximately $9.3 million in political contributions — nearly double the previous national record for a state judicial election. Karmeier, who received over $350,000 in direct contributions from State Farm’s employees, lawyers and others, and over $1 million more from groups of which State Farm was a member or to which it contributed, won both the fundraising battle and the election. Justice Karmeier then declined to recuse himself from Avery, which had been pending before the Illinois Supreme Court during the campaign. In the case, Justice Karmeier cast the decisive vote reversing a lower court’s breach of contract verdict of over $450 million against State Farm."

You can read the brief here.

Lawsuit to Reform Ohio Elections Moves Forward (December 5, 2005)
A federal court in Ohio issued an important ruling on today in our path-breaking lawsuit that seeks to remedy widespread constitutional defects in the way Ohio conducts elections. The ruling, issued by Chief Judge James G. Carr of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, rejected a request by the defendants, Ohio Governor Bob Taft and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to dismiss our claims that breakdowns and deficiencies in Ohio's election administration have violated the rights of our clients under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution. The ruling allows these claims, brought on behalf of League of Women Voters of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Toledo-Lucas County, and several Ohio citizens, to proceed through discovery and an expected trial in June 2006.

The court specifically rejected arguments by the defendants that state officials are not responsible to protect voters' rights in Ohio. The court stated that even "inaction that diminishes the right to vote" may be unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and that state officials "cannot adopt policies leading to disparate treatment of those voters and thereafter plead 'no control' as a defense." The court also held that if the defendants acted with "deliberate indifference" and that indifference resulted in injury to the voters, the state defendants would be in violation of the Due Process Clause.

The court dismissed as premature one statutory count under the Help America Vote Act, but left the door open to refile the claim at a later date.

The lawsuit does not challenge the results of any past elections. Instead, it seeks to protect the rights of Ohio voters in future elections. Filed originally in federal court in Toledo on July 28, 2005, the Complaint chronicles deficiencies in Ohio's election administration over more than three decades, including widespread problems with the voter registration system, the absentee and provisional ballot processes, the training of poll workers, the organization of polling places and precincts, and the allocation of voting machines. The lawsuit seeks to compel the state defendants to carry out their duties to protect the fundamental right to vote in time for the November 2006 general election. The relief sought would require the state defendants to exercise their authority to repair the problems at all stages of the Ohio elections process. This will include removing burdens that disenfranchise Ohio voters and make the ability to vote vary widely from county to county.

NVRI serves as co-counsel for the plaintiffs along with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the law firms of Proskauer Rose LLP, Arnold & Porter LLP, and Connelly, Jackson & Collier LLP, the People For the American Way Foundation, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

What’s the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and Why Does It Matter? (September 22, 2005)
NVRI staff attorney Lisa Danetz has drafted a Fact Sheet, "Implementation of the National Voter Registration Act," for the National Network on State Election Reform, a newly-formed collective of civil rights, voting rights, civic participation and legal organizations dedicated to advancing meaningful election reform. The organizations' mutual commitment to ensuring that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast a meaningful ballot that is accurately counted forms the foundation of the coalition. As part of its work, Network organizations have created short fact sheets on important issues in election reform. The NVRA Fact Sheet provides recommendations on how states can encourage voter registration by improving their compliance with the NVRA, which, among other things, requires states to offer voter registration at motor vehicle agencies, public assistance agencies, offices serving persons with disabilities, and other state offices. To view the Fact Sheet, click here.

NVRI Joins Challenge to Carter-Baker Recommendations (September 20, 2005)
NVRI joined a long list of organizations concerned about the recommendations -- issued on Monday the 19th -- for changes to elections in America. The statement begins: "After just two limited hearings and no call for public comment, the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform has issued a new report containing many deeply flawed recommendations. ... In general, we are disappointed by the path that the Commission has chosen—one characterized by a lack of transparency and a reluctance to conduct thorough research or consult with a full range of recognized experts. Unfortunately, this Commission failed to live up to the transparent and effective process of its predecessor, the 2001 Carter-Ford Commission on Federal Election Reform. Owing to its vast flaws, this Commission’s recommendations suffer by comparison." To read the full release, click here.

NVRI Board member (and Carter-Baker Commission member) Spencer Overton issued a detailed dissent from the report, which is available here: www.carterbakerdissent.com. More on the substantive shortcomings can be found at this website: www.carterbaker.com

NVRI Files Brief in Support of Student Government Spending Limits (September 20, 2005)
NVRI continues to support spending limits for student government at the University of Montana – Missoula. On behalf of the University, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, and several student Defendants, NVRI filed a brief on September 19, 2005, opposing student Aaron Flint’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling that “a state university may, in the interest of preserving the quality and availability of educational opportunities for its students, place reasonable restrictions on free speech.” The brief argues that student spending limits are permissible because they foster participation in student government by a broad and diverse range of students, furthering the educational value of student government and assuring that its benefits are appropriately open to all students. Read the brief here.

Response to Blackwell Filed in Challenge to Ohio Voting System (September 19, 2005)
The coalition of groups and plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's voting system today filed a response to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's motion to dismiss the case. "[Our] complaint sets forth, in more than sixty pages of exceptionally detailed, factual allegations, the long history showing that the right to vote in Ohio is repeatedly and routinely denied by a patently unfair, dysfunctional, and ultimately arbitrary voting process." While Secretary Blackwell claimed that in fact it is the local boards of elections that should be held responsible for the election system, the response went on to explain that It is the defendants' "affirmative duty to direct and ensure the lawful, equitable, conduct of elections..." You can read the entire response here.

Federal Judge Sets Expedited Schedule for Lawsuit Challenging Disenfranchisement in Ohio (September 15, 2005)
At a scheduling conference held August 30, 2005, Chief U.S. District Judge James Carr granted the plaintiffs' request for an expedited discovery process and trial date in League of Women Voters of Ohio v. Blackwell, a lawsuit in which we are seeking fundamental reform of Ohio's dysfunctional election process. Under the schedule established by Judge Carr, pre-trial discovery will proceed immediately, and will not be stayed to await a decision on the state defendants' pending motion to dismiss the complaint. Judge Carr set a trial date of June 13, 2006, with the aim of having a decision in advance of the 2006 elections. Depositions of the plaintiffs are to be completed by October 31, 2005, depositions of defendant and third party witnesses by December 15, 2005, and expert discovery is to be completed by February 15, 2006.

Filed in federal court in Toledo, the complaint chronicles deficiencies in Ohio elections going back more than three decades, including widespread problems with the voter registration system, the absentee and provisional ballot processes, the training of poll workers, the organization of polling places and precincts, and the allocation of voting machines. The lawsuit seeks to compel the state to uphold its constitutional obligation to provide for its citizens' right to register and vote. It also alleges Ohio has failed to meet its obligations under the Help America Vote Act. NVRI is partnering with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Proskauer Rose LLP, Arnold & Porter LLP, People for the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Connelly, Jackson & Collier LLP, to provide representation to the plaintiffs in this case. For more information, see here.

Voting Rights Act—all of it—still needed after 40 years. (August 5, 2005)
In 1965, a landmark law was passed that banned discrimination during elections. Here's why -- 40 years later -- America still needs it. NVRI Executive Director Stuart Comstock-Gay wrote this piece for TomPaine.com.

CHALLENGING OHIO'S ELECTION SYSTEM (July 28, 2005)
Today, NVRI joined our colleagues at other leading voting rights organizations in a historic lawsuit pressing Ohio to fix their broken election system. The non-partisan lawsuit, filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the League of Women Voters of Toledo-Lucas County, and more than a dozen Ohio citizens, seeks to redress decades-old Constitutional defects in the way Ohio conducts federal elections. If successful, the suit would require the state to repair the problems at all stages of the electoral process. The suit was announced at simultaneous press conferences in Columbus and Toledo.

"Long lines, inadequate facilities for voting, registrations that are not processed on time, and absentee ballots that never arrive have deprived far too many Ohioans of the right to vote for far too long. The system needs reform now," said NVRI's Managing Attorney Brenda Wright.

To read the full press release, click here.

To review the complaint, click here.

Georgia Voter ID Law Called Discriminatory (July 8, 2005)
NVRI and two dozen other civil rights, religious, labor and advocacy groups in urging the Department of Justice to block implementation of a new Georgia law which they say will have a substantially negative "racial impact" on minority voters. In a letter submitted on July 8, we argue that a new photo identification requirements contained in Georgia House Bill 244 are unnecessary and were purposefully adopted to make minority voters worse off.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that any changes to election laws in nine states, including Georgia, as well as portions of seven others, receive clearance from federal officials before going into effect. The law reduces the various forms of identification that voters can use from 17 to six, and makes photo identification absolutely required in order to vote. The law is particularly harmful to African Americans, who are nearly six times more likely than whites in Georgia to live below the poverty line. And because Georgia has only 56 Department of Motor Vehicle Services offices statewide, compared to its 159 counties, African Americans will face increased obstacles and costs to securing photo identification, said the groups. Moreover, the state did not make an adequate case that this protection is necessary. Read the letter here.

Former Massachusetts Speaker Indicted (June 9, 2005)
In a case arising from an important voting rights lawsuit in Boston, former Massachusetts House speaker Thomas Finneran was indicted by a Massachusetts grand jury this week on charges of lying under oath about his role in redrawing state legislative districts. The charges come from a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by a number of Massachusetts organizations and voters in 2002. Finneran's district, the 12th Suffolk, was one of the districts targeted by the lawsuit. In the redistricting plan, predominantly minority precincts in Boston were removed from Finneran's district, and replaced by predominantly white precincts in Milton.

During the trial in 2003, Finneran - an extremely powerful Speaker of the House at the time - told the three-judge panel he had no role in making changes to his own legislative district and had not reviewed the plan before it was released to the general public. The court said it found his testimony hard to believe. The indictment charges Finneran with three counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice.

"The Voting Rights Act is one of the most important - if not the most important - civil rights measures this country has ever enacted," said NVRI Managing Attorney Brenda Wright. "If an elected official commits perjury to obstruct an investigation under the Voting Rights Act, he should be held accountable." To see Wright's comments on NECN television, click here.

NVRI represented Latino voters in litigation that was consolidated with the Boston redistricting case. Read about the litigation here. While the case for a majority Hispanic district was not successful, the court did find that the redistricting plan in Boston - including Finneran's district, the 12th Suffolk - violated the voting rights of African Americans.

Ohio "Election Reform" Legislation Falls Short (May 5, 2005)
It's "poorly organized, confusing, and filled with vague language..." Moreover, some provisions would make things worse. That's how NVRI and a group of our allies described Ohio's HB 3, a proposed "election reform bill" now pending in that state. In a May 4 statement, we acknowledge that some features of the bill would represent improvement, but that overall it falls far short of the major reforms needed to address the problems exposed in the November 2004 election. And some provisions, such as using mailings to remove registered voters from the active rolls just 20 days prior to the election, would make things worse and would violate federal law. Read the statement here.

In hearings on the bill, Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law presented detailed testimony -- which NVRI helped develop - describing significant problems in Ohio in the areas of voter registration, provisional balloting, absentee balloting, voting machines, lack of resources and proper training of election officials, long lines and delays. To read his testimony, click here.

NVRI Files Amicus Brief in Federal Court Regarding Felon Disenfranchisement (January 28, 2005)
A combination of policies regarding the census, political redistricting and felon disenfranchisement are discriminating against racial minorities in New York state. The state denies incarcerated prisoners the right to vote, yet counts prisoners as residents of prisons where they are incarcerated when drawing its state legislative districts. This practice dilutes minority voting strength by enhancing the voting power of upstate rural prison districts, at the expense of the urban minority communities where most prisoners retain their legal residence.

NVRI, together with the Prison Policy Initiative, describes the racially discriminatory impact of this practice in an amicus brief filed January 28, 2005 in Muntaqim v. Coombe, a case challenging New York's prisoner disenfranchisement laws under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Second Circuit has granted an unusual en banc review of the case.

To read more, click here.