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Settlement in Missouri Lawsuit a Victory for Low-Income Voters

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog

In a major victory for voting rights, low-income voters in the state of Missouri will finally have better access to voter registration opportunities, thanks to a lawsuit settlement announced today by Project Vote, Demos, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

For years Missouri was one of many states neglecting their obligations under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to offer voter registration services through agencies providing public assistance and services to persons with disabilities. After a court order in the suit required the state to comply with the NVRA in July, Missouri public assistance agencies went from collecting fewer than 8,000 applications a year to collecting over 100,000 applications in just eight months. Today's settlement of the case confirms Missouri's renewed commitment to continuing this remarkable success, and sends a message to other states that enfranchising its low-income citizens is as simple as following federal law.

This victory came about through the work of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project, a joint nationwide effort to assess and address areas of noncompliance. “With growing agreement on the need to improve voter registration in the United States, it is important to note that those least likely to be registered are low- to moderate-income Americans,” said Nicole Kovite, director of the Project for Project Vote, in a statement released today. (Forty percent of adult Americans who earn less than $25,000 are unregistered, compared to only 20 percent of  citizens earning more than $100,000.) “This case illustrates how state governments can and should take the lead in reducing this disparity by fully implementing the public agency requirements of the NVRA.”

In 2007 Project Vote assessed Missouri's track record of noncompliance and documented widespread violations of the NVRA. In April 2008, after unsuccessfully attempting to work with the state to resolve the issues, a lawsuit was filed against the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS) on behalf of ACORN and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal. The plaintiffs were represented by lawyers from Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, as well as by local counsel Arthur Benson of Arthur Benson & Associates.

Evidence of the state's neglect of the federal law were cited in the July court ruling, including the state's own documents confirming that more than one million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration between 2003 and 2008 because the DSS did not order enough forms required for its clients. Further, a field study conducted by Project Vote and ACORN found that half of all 21 counties surveyed did not routinely provide voter registration forms, and some flat out did not provide voter registration at all. In one particularly outstanding case, a county DSS allowed applications to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to be processed by the local election authority.

In the settlement agreement Missouri agrees to require “each DSS office to collect and report detailed monthly data on the numbers of persons visiting DSS offices, their responses to voter registration inquiries, the numbers of voter registrations completed and submitted to local election authorities, and other key information, and to provide this data monthly to plaintiffs' counsel,” according to the press release today.  The agreement also requires the designation of NVRA coordinators at both the state and local levels as well as the implementation of mandatory trainings of employees in voter registration duties. The DSS is also responsible for providing voter registration applications with regular mailings to clients and in connection with transactions by phone or internet.

The success in Missouri serves as a “timely reminder that governments, not third-party drives, are the most effective way to bring millions of low-income Americans into the electorate,” as Jeff Ordower, Missouri ACORN Head Organizer, said in today's statement. The potential for this program nationwide is tremendous. Project Vote conservatively estimates that public assistance agencies nationwide could be collecting over 200,000 applications a month, or between two and three million per year.  

Clearly, other states across the country that have ignored their responsibilities under the NVRA should take note of Missouri's example and bring their practices into compliance with this vital and effective law.

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