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Federal Judge Orders Missouri to Register Low-Income Voters

The state failed to offer more than 1 million people the chance to register to vote.
 
 
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A federal court Tuesday ordered the Missouri Department of Social Services immediately to comply with a federal law requiring the state's social welfare offices provide voter registration applications and assistance to their clients.

The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, came in a lawsuit filed in April 2008 by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal charging widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The NVRA, commonly called the motor voter bill, requires state agencies to ask the public if they want to register to vote and to help them do so. Since the law's passage in 1993, many states have only asked people applying for driver's licenses.

The Missouri litigation was part of a nationwide effort to push states to fully implement the NVRA's voter registration provisions.

The ruling yesterday followed written submissions and a one-day preliminary injunction hearing on July 9, 2008, at which lawyers from Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP and Project Vote, presented evidence that, over the past several years, the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS) violated the NVRA by failing to provide Ms. O'Neal and tens of thousands of other low-income Missourians with the opportunity to register to vote or change their voter registration address during visits to the offices of DSS agencies.

The "substantial evidence" of voting rights violations cited by the Court in its ruling included:

  • State documents confirming that over 1 million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because DSS did not order enough of the forms it is required to give each client. The court also viewed field surveys by plaintiffs of agency offices as persuasive evidence of poor compliance.
  • E-mails from a DSS employee acknowledging that half the counties in a 21-county survey were not routinely providing voter registration to DSS clients.
  • E-mails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to the local election authority for processing.

The Court's order directs DSS within five business days to send notice to all relevant employees that compliance with the NVRA is "mandatory" and states that "failure to comply with this order will subject the Department of Social Services to citation for contempt of court." It also requires DSS to establish monitoring and reporting procedures to ensure compliance, and to provide voter registration opportunities to anyone it finds has not been offered the required services.

"The Court's ruling today vindicates the rights of thousands of low-income Missourians to register and have their voices heard in this critical election year. We are gratified that the Court acted so quickly in response to our evidence," said Brenda Wright, legal director of the Democracy Program at Demos and one of the counsel representing plaintiffs at the hearing.

"The Court's ruling sends a powerful message to Missouri and other states across the country that they need to offer voter registration at public assistance agencies. With full national compliance, tens of millions of economically disadvantaged citizens will be able to register to vote or update their address information for voting when they apply for or renew their benefits," stated Jon Greenbaum, who led the Lawyers' Committee's effort as director of its Voting Rights Project.

The NVRA is commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law, due to its requirement that states provide voter registration opportunities at motor vehicle departments. The NVRA also requires that voter registration be offered at public assistance agencies when citizens apply for benefits, recertify their eligibility and change their address.

Low-income citizens are among the least likely to own a car and therefore are less likely to register to vote at motor vehicle departments, making the public assistance agency requirement crucial in reaching these citizens. Only 66 percent of adult Missouri citizens in households making less than $25,000 a year were registered to vote in 2006 compared to 85 percent of those in households making $100,000 or more.

"ACORN is proud to be part of this victory," said Jeff Ordower, Missouri ACORN head organizer. "This order could lead to more than a hundred thousand new voters from low income communities that have historically been under-represented in the political process."

"Everyone should be treated equally," said Dionne O'Neal following Judge Laughrey's decision.

A report earlier this year by Demos and Project Vote found that many states throughout the country have seen a substantial decline in registrations at public assistance agencies since the NVRA first went into effect in 1995. Both organizations, together with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, have launched efforts in numerous states to improve compliance with the NVRA. Several, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado, have agreed to compliance efforts without the filing of a lawsuit. The lawsuit in Missouri was filed only after a notice letter sent to DSS Director Deborah Scott in August 2007 failed to produce progress in compliance.

"I hope that Missouri and the other states that are not in compliance will reach out and take advantage of the expertise our organizations have in implementing successful voter registration procedures in public assistance agencies," said Brian Mellor, senior counsel for Project Vote.

"Our firm was privileged to partner with organizations committed to protect the right to vote and prevent disenfranchisement of citizens in obtaining this favorable decision," said John Nonna, attorney at Dewey & LeBoeuf.

The plaintiffs are represented by the national public policy center Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP and Kansas City attorney Arthur A. Benson II.

To view the court's order, and for more information on the NVRA and voting rights, visit www.demos.org, www.projectvote.org, or www.lawyerscommittee.org.

Demos, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote are all public-interest groups whose work includes advocating for enforcement of America's voting rights laws.

 
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