Judge throws out Ohio voter registration rules, says they appear to violate free speech

Friday, September 1st 2006, 9:59 pm
By: News On 6

CLEVELAND (AP) _ A federal judge threw out new state rules governing voter registration drives on Friday, saying they appear to violate the First Amendment and hurt efforts to sign up new voters.

Effective immediately, voters should ignore references to criminal penalties on the registration forms, U.S. District Judge Kathleen O'Malley said. She gave the secretary of state's office five days to remove references to the rules and penalties on its Web site.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor, said he plans to comply.

``Voting rights in Ohio have just been emancipated and now our goal is to replace fear with enthusiasm,'' said one of the plaintiffs, the Rev. Tony Minor.

O'Malley issued an order from the bench, saying she wanted to rule before Labor Day weekend _ traditionally a heavy voter registration drive time. A detailed written order is expected next week.

A coalition of voter advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers had sued the state, arguing the regulations should be thrown out.

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 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. They argued that criminal penalties could deter people from canvassing.

The state said the rules were needed to guard against voter fraud, an argument that O'Malley discounted.

``It is insufficient because it is not logical,'' she said. ``Those who would work to make sure those who can vote do vote will have a less likelihood to commit fraud.''

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.