Registration Rates of Low-Income Citizens Improve after Lawsuits
Thousands of low-income citizens in Louisiana and Georgia have recently applied to register to vote at public agency offices, according to a new report released by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). This represents a dramatic increase in applications and is the result of successful lawsuits brought by voting rights groups to bring the states into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993.
The NVRA requires that public agencies that provide public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs, also proactively offer their clients the opportunity to register to vote every time they apply for benefits, recertify, or change their addresses.
NVRA in Louisiana
In 2011, Project Vote and its partners began investigating Louisiana’s dismal voter registration numbers at public agencies, which suggested that the state was failing to comply with this important law. In 1995–1996, the first two years of NVRA implementation, Louisiana public agencies registered nearly 75,000 citizens. Over the next 13 years, however, registrations had dropped 88 percent. Though the numbers of participants in Louisiana’s food stamp and Medicaid programs remained consistently high, only approximately 3,000 people per year submitted registration applications through public agencies in 2009–2010.
Project Vote and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filed suit in April 2011 on behalf of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and an individual SNAP (food stamp) applicant seeking to bring Louisiana into compliance with the NVRA. In 2012, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Project Vote and LDF were assisted in this effort by local Attorney Ron Wilson and the pro bono legal services of the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, LLP.
Now, new data compiled and released by the EAC show that the improved compliance brought about as a result of the lawsuit is working. Statewide, 29,233 voter registration applications were submitted by public agency clients between 2011 and 2012. This represents a dramatic increase of 384 percent over the previous two-year period.
NVRA in Georgia
During the 1995-1996 reporting period, the first two years of NVRA implementation, the Department of Human Services (DHS) reported 100,000 registration applications, but in 2010 the number of registrations had dropped dramatically. Though the numbers of participants in Georgia’s food stamp and Medicaid programs remained consistently high, there were only a few hundred submitted registration applications through public agencies in 2009–2010.
Voting rights groups filed suit in Georgia in 2011 on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP (Georgia NAACP) and the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda (Peoples’ Agenda). The plaintiffs were represented by lawyers from Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dēmos, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP, and the law firm Dechert LLP.
Last year, the state settled the lawsuit and agreed to comply with the law. The settlement detailed specific procedures for Georgia to distribute voter registration applications to public assistance clients during in-person and remote transactions. The settlement also included a variety of measures aimed at promoting and ensuring NVRA compliance, including voter registration training for public assistance employees, data collection, and reporting requirements.
Now, new data compiled and released by the EAC show that the improved compliance brought about as a result of the lawsuit is working. Statewide, 17,790 voter registration applications were submitted by public agency clients between 2011 and 2012.
About the NVRA and the Public Agency Voter Registration Program
Widely known as the “motor voter” law, the NVRA was passed in 1993. Among its other provisions, it required voter registration be offered at motor vehicle offices and agencies providing public assistance. Over 140 million Americans have applied to register through their Department of Motor Vehicles and public agencies since the law was first implemented in 1995.
However, after initial implementation saw great gains in voter registration applications, a worrisome trend of drop offs in registrations at public agencies followed as states began ignoring the requirements of the NVRA. Project Vote and allies, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dēmos, created the Public Agency Voter Registration Program to ensure that voter registration at public agencies would occur in compliance with the law. Working with other voting rights groups and pro-bono legal counsel, the project works to ensure through advocacy, technical assistance, and litigation that public assistance agency clients—the poorest and most marginalized residents—are offered their legally-guaranteed opportunity to register to vote.
Over nearly a decade, Project Vote and allies have taken measures in dozens of states, through partnerships or legal action, to bring the states into compliance. This work has resulted in 1.8 million more Americans applying to be registered to vote.