January 08, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Citing clear evidence that hundreds of thousands of low-income Indiana residents have illegally been denied the opportunity to register to vote, today the voting rights groups Project Vote and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) sent a pre-litigation notice letter to Secretary of State Todd Rokita calling on him to bring Indiana into compliance with a federal law, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), that requires public assistance agencies offer voter registration services to their clients.
“Under Secretary of State Rokita’s administration Indiana has passed new laws making it harder for voters to participate in the democratic process,” says Project Vote’s executive director Michael Slater. “Now we have clear evidence that, under Rokita’s watch, Indiana has also been flouting a federal voting rights law that makes participation easier for low-income Indiana voters.”
According to the letter, which is required before party initiates litigation, Indiana’s registration rate for low-income voters is the fourth-worst in the nation: almost 50 percent of low-income voters in Indiana remain unregistered, including over 385,000 citizens from households making less than $25,000 a year.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) is better known as the “Motor Voter” law because of its requirement that motor vehicle departments provide voter registration services to people when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. An equally important but less well-known provision requires state public assistance agencies such as Food Stamps, TANF, and Medicaid to provide voter registration services to their clients. The public agency requirement was included by Congress to offset the potential of DMV registration to skew the electorate towards affluent Americans. In the first two years after passage of the NVRA, Indiana registered more than 80,000 people through public assistance agencies.
However, according to evidence cited in the notice letter, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) is now almost completely disregarding this law. By 2005-2006, registrations through public assistance agencies in Indiana had fallen more than 90 percent, to a mere 6,000. A November 2008 Project Vote survey of a number of FSSA offices and clients in Marion and Lake counties found that none of the offices were providing voter registration applications to their clients, and nearly all had no voter registration forms on their premises. None of the benefits applications collected during the investigation included the required registration materials, and none of the clients interviewed said they had been offered an opportunity to register to vote.
Project Vote’s NVRA Implementation Project has been working to bring more than a dozen states into compliance with the public assistance requirements of the NVRA. According to Nicole Kovite, director of the program for Project Vote, the results from the survey in Indiana were among the worst they have seen in the country. “Most FSSA staffers were completely unaware that they were required to provide voter registration services,” Kovite says.
In the past year several other states that had been disregarding the NVRA have been forced to comply. Two weeks ago the Justice Department announced an agreement with Illinois to bring that state into compliance, following an investigation that discovered similarly widespread violations. Arizona avoided litigation by reaching a similar agreement earlier this year. In July, Project Vote and others brought a lawsuit that resulted in a judge ordering Missouri to immediately comply with the NVRA. Following this order registrations through public assistance agencies skyrocketed to over 26,000 in just six weeks—more than in the previous two years combined.
“By shamefully disregarding the NVRA, Indiana is not only missing the opportunity to register hundreds of thousands of low-income residents every year, but also leaving the state vulnerable to expensive litigation,” says Kovite. “We look forward to hearing back from Secretary of State Rokita on how he intends to bring the state into compliance with the law and ensure that all Indianans have an equal opportunity to register to vote.”