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Voting Rights Groups Sue States for Failing to Register Low-Income Residents

Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog

By Erin Ferns

Enfranchising America's least represented citizens is as simple as following the law: that's the message Project Vote and a coalition of voting rights groups sent today as they filed lawsuits against Indiana and New Mexico for failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Under a key provision of the NVRA, most states are required to provide voter registration opportunities to the millions of low-income Americans who apply for or use public assistance programs such as Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Medicaid. Project Vote estimates that full implementation of this law could improve lagging voter registration rates among low-income citizens by two to three million new voters per year nationwide.

Unfortunately, compliance with the NVRA since its inception in 1993 has been spotty at best, non-existent at worst, leaving third-party groups with the hefty responsibility of picking up the slack by conducting expensive registration drives in disenfranchised communities. The groups believe it is time for government to be doing its job of registering its citizens, and to start by properly implementing and enforcing the NVRA.

The latest offenders under this federal law include the states of New Mexico and Indiana, both of which are being sued for denying hundreds of thousands of residents the opportunity to register to vote. Representing the plaintiffs are Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, the ACLU of Indiana, and law firms, Barnhill & Galland and Schwartz, Lichten, & Bright, Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, and DLA Piper U.S.

Last week, the Election Assistance Commission confirmed that poor implementation of public agency registration is a “widespread problem,” according to today's press releases. Between 1995 and 1996 – the first two years the law was in effect – 2.6 million voter registration applications were collected from people who visited offices for Food Stamps, TANF, and Medicaid. That number dramatically declined in 2007-2008, when fewer than one million applications were collected nationwide, according to the EAC report.

The decline was even more severe in New Mexico, where public assistance agencies–despite steady participation rates–showed a 90 percent decrease in voter registration applications from since 1995.

“In 2007 the average number of adult participants in the Food Stamp program alone was over 103,000, but [the Human Services Department] averaged only 134 registration applications per month,” according to the press release. “Project Vote investigations of six HSD offices in January 2009 revealed that none of the offices provided voter registration application forms to their clients as part of the benefits application.” Additionally, the complaint alleges that New Mexico has also been neglecting the better known “motor voter” provisions of the NVRA, which require motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration services. Officials from the HSD are among the defendants named in the suit, which also includes New Mexico's Secretary of State, Mary Herrera, officials from the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division, and the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department.

“The NVRA was enacted to ensure that states affirmatively provide all citizens an equal opportunity to register to vote,” says Nicole Kovite, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. “By ignoring this vital law, New Mexico is denying this right to thousands of its residents every year.”  

In Indiana — which has one of the country's worst records for voter registration, particularly among low-income people–evidence of violations of the NVRA were also cited in the coalition's lawsuit against officials from Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration, the co-directors of the Indiana Election Division, and the members of the Indiana Election Commission. Although the state currently has more 300,000 adult participants every month in the Indiana Food Stamp program alone, voter registration applications have declined from 80,000 applications collected in the 1995-1996 election cycle to a dismal 2,519 in 2007-2008.

“Voter registration should primarily be the responsibility of the government,” said Jeff Ordower, ACORN's Midwest regional director. “Indiana's noncompliance has not only resulted in thousands of low-income and minority Indiana citizens being denied the opportunity to register to vote, it has also forced ACORN, the NAACP, and other groups to expend considerable effort and resources to take up the slack.”

As they did in Indiana and New Mexico, the coalition has sent pre-litigation letters “notifying California, Colorado, and New Jersey that lawsuits may be necessary if they do not bring their programs into compliance,” the group said. However, the group emphasizes that states do not need to wait to be sued before finally complying with federal law.

“Recently several states that had been disregarding the NVRA have been forced to comply,” according to the coalition. “Last week the State of Missouri settled a similar lawsuit brought by the voting rights groups; since a court order in that suit forced Missouri public assistance agencies into compliance in July, voter registration applications skyrocketed from fewer than 8,000 a year to more than 100,000 in just eight months. In 2008, Department of Justice investigations forced both Arizona and Illinois to take steps to improve compliance.”

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