The poorest Ohioans are a demographic that hasn’t been courted much by the campaign of either President Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Much of the focus of the rhetoric of both candidates has been on how their leadership would benefit and grow America’s middle class.
However, Ohio’s county Job and Family Services offices — where low-income Ohioans go for benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, or welfare — have quietly registered more than 500,000 Ohio voters since 2010.
It’s unclear how many of these newly registered voters will cast ballots in November, but all indications are the race in Ohio remains tight — and every vote will be important.
The registrations are the result of changes that were enacted after a federal lawsuit was settled in 2009.
The suit alleged widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act; part of the law requires public assistance agencies to provide voter registration opportunities to clients. The 1993 law is also known as the "Motor Voter" act because it allowed states to register voters when they were renewing a drivers license.
The lawsuit, filed in 2006, alleged that random visits to JFS offices in several counties found the offices had no voter-registration applications on hand. A survey of people leaving the offices noted only three of 103 were asked if they wanted to register. From 2002 to 2004, 10 county JFS offices didn't register any voters, 17 other county offices registered fewer than 10 voters, and 32 county offices registered fewer than 100 voters.
Also between 2002 and 2004, some JFS offices for rural counties with small populations registered far more voters than urban counties with larger populations and more people living at or below the poverty line; and although JFS offices processed approximately 4.7 million requests for assistance between 2003 and 2004, the number of voter-registration applications processed during that period amounted to less than 1.5 percent of that number.
The suit was filed by ACORN, a group that drew fire from Republicans in Congress and later effectively collapsed in the wake of a video-sting scandal.
As part of the lawsuit’s 2009 settlement, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services agreed to incorporate voter registration materials into the application for food, cash, and medical assistance.
Registration is optional, and no one seeking benefits is required to register to vote, said Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the state Department of Job and Family Services.
County agencies are required to send completed voter registration forms to their county board of elections and report the total number of registrations to the Ohio department each month.
State data show 191,237 registrations through county JFS offices in 2010; 195,560 registrations in 2011; and 125,597 this year through the end of August.
Some of these registrations are likely not brand-new voters, but currently registered voters updating an address or other change, said Mr. Johnson. There is no way to know how many are new versus current voters, however.
Prior to the lawsuit and settlement, all of Ohio's county JFS offices were registering about 1,775 voters monthly; the number is now closer to about 16,000 a month, said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel with Demos, a liberal policy and advocacy organization.
Ms. Danetz was one of the lead attorneys in the 2006 lawsuit against the state. Since the case in Ohio, similar suits have been settled in Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Georgia.
The Ohio case was one of the first. Suits are ongoing over the issue in Louisiana, Massachusetts and Nevada, she said.
Lower-income people tend to vote at a rate below that of the general population, said Stephen Brooks, associate director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “The further down [in income] you go, the less likely you are to vote,” he said. Mr. Brooks also noted that being registered doesn't mean a person will actually vote.
“If you register because you are getting your [driver’s] license, there’s no guarantee that 10 months later when the election rolls around, you’ll care to vote.”
Voter-registration materials are typically available at public high schools, libraries, county treasurer offices, county boards of elections, and offices of the Ohio Bureau of Motor vehicles, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, said that although he believes voter registration is a service that should be offered by JFS offices, he questions how effective it is to register clients when they often come to a JFS office in the midst of an economic emergency.
“They [clients] get so much paperwork and everything else from us, frankly, I’m not sure if it is really a high priority for people who are coming to us,” Mr. Potts said.
However, while campaigns do not traditionally pay attention to low-income voters as a group, Mr. Brooks added, “In a tight election, like the one we are going to have in Ohio, every vote counts.”
Melvinita Williams, who was in the lobby of the Lucas County Job and Family Services office on Thursday morning, said she will vote in November for President Obama.
Now age 49, she said she has been registered to vote since age 18 and takes the right seriously.
"Our voice counts," she said. "It does count."
She supports President Obama because, she said, "I feel like he hasn't had enough time to change. It was messed up when he got in there."
Khassandra Billings, another registered voter who was at the Lucas County JFS office, said she also will support the President because she believes he has made progress with improving the economy and has made it easier for someone like herself to attend college.
"I want to go to college," she said. "Obama has taken steps to make it easier to afford college."
She also took issue with Mr. Romney's comments about 47 percent of Americans expecting government support and feeling like they are victims, she said.
A Gallup poll in September found President Obama has a significant lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney among low-income voters, although Mr. Romney still gets 34 percent of the vote among Americans with household incomes less than $24,000 annually.
Oct. 9 is the deadline to register to vote in Ohio for the November general election. Early voting begins Tuesday.
Jack Frech, Job and Family Services director in Athens County, Ohio, said the fact that neither presidential candidate has done much to capture the vote of the low-income clients his office serves is disappointing and shows the depth of the stigma against the poor.
“There’s several hundred thousand people — at minimum — who walk through our offices who are registered to vote,” he said.
Jon Stainbrook, chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, said the theory that poor people are all Democrats is false and he thinks JFS offices "should do their jobs properly" and make an effort to register voters.
"People would say 'why would you want people to be registered?' Well, it's the law," Mr. Stainbrook said.
Contact Kate Giammarise at: email@example.com or 419-724-6091or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.