NAACP, GCPA Sue Georgia for Neglecting Low-Income Voter Registration
(APN) ATLANTA — Advocacy groups filed a lawsuit on June 06, 2011 in federal court to force Georgia’s state public assistance offices to comply with a section of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) that requires all public assistance offices to offer voter registration forms to people seeking public assistance.
The Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Georgia NAACP) and the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda (GCPA) filed the suit.
The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP, and the law firm Dechert LLP.
The Defendants are Georgia Secretary of State (SOS) Brian Kemp and Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) Clyde V. Reese III.
On January 25, 2011, citing clear evidence that low-income Georgia residents are being denied a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote, these legal groups sent an official notice letter to SOS Kemp, on behalf of the Georgia NAACP, demanding Kemp immediately act to bring Georgia into compliance with the NVRA.
According to evidence cited in the January notice letter, the Georgia DHS has largely disregarded this law in recent years.
According to the Complaint, the number of Georgians registering to vote at public assistance offices has dropped dramatically since the NVRA first took effect in 1995.
During the 1995-1996 reporting period, DHS received more than 100,000 registration applications, but in 2010 the number of registrations had dropped to a mere 4,430.
By comparison, in 2009, Georgia, on average, received nearly 70,000 applications each month for just one of the public assistance programs (Food Stamps) covered by the NVRA’s voter registration requirements.
Field investigations conducted by the voting rights groups found that eight out of eleven DHS offices surveyed were not providing voter registration applications to their clients at all, and that voter registration at the other three offices also was not being conducted in compliance with the procedures mandated by the NVRA.
“The State of Georgia has been ignoring its responsibilities under the NVRA for too many years,” Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration program at Project Vote, said in a statement.
“The result is that thousands of low-income Georgians have been denied the opportunity to register to vote,” Zeitler said.
“Georgia public officials must take seriously their legal responsibility to provide voter registration services to the State’s public assistance clients,” Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project, said.
“Congress required that public assistance offices serve as voter registration agencies to ensure that low income persons, who historically have been disenfranchised, are given a periodic opportunity to register to vote or update their existing voter registration,” Kengle said.
“When states violate the NVRA, they have the opportunity to take corrective action after receiving notice of the violation,” Allegra Chapman, counsel at Demos, said.
“We had hoped the Secretary’s office would want to remedy the violations quickly and efficiently. Because that has not happened, plaintiffs had no other choice but to sue to ensure that, going forward, low-income Georgia citizens receive the voter registration opportunities to which they’re entitled,” Chapman said.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires all states’ public assistance offices to provide clients with a voter registration application each time they apply for benefits, recertify, or fill out a change of address form.
The Complaint alleges Georgia has been largely ignoring this mandate for many years, and asks the court to enjoin Georgia to take all necessary action to bring about compliance with the NVRA, according to a copy obtained by Atlanta Progressive News.
This must include proper procedures for distributing voter registration applications, training of public assistance office personnel as to their voter registration responsibilities, and measures to track voter registration data and monitor compliance.
“DHS policy has specified that clients who once decline an offer to register to vote should never be offered registration again, which clearly violates the NVRA’s requirement that voter registration be offered with each application, recertification, and change of address,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a press release.
“Georgia state law only requires that voter registration services be offered to persons completing transactions in person, despite the Department of Justice’s instruction that voter registration must be provided for remote transactions as well,” the press release said.
The decline of poor people’s voter registration applications during the first decade of 2000 seems to correlate with the rise of Republicans in power in the State of Georgia. It is not in Republican self-interest for the state’s poor and disenfranchised people to vote because they generally vote Democratic.
“I’m disappointed that the groups behind this meritless lawsuit are more interested in grabbing headlines than increasing opportunities for Georgians to register to vote. Voter registration and participation among all Georgians has continuously increased as we have implemented numerous measures to strengthen election security,” Secretary of State Brian Kemp said in a press release.
The NVRA, also known as The Motor Voter Act, was signed into law by US President Bill Clinton on May 20, 1993, and went into effect in 1995.
The legislation required state governments to allow for registration when a qualifying voter applied for or renewed their driver’s license–hence the nickname Motor Voter–or applied for social services.
Initally, this act has had a significant impact on voter registration. For example, in the first quarter of 1995, two million new voters overall were registered nationwide. Georgia registered 180,000 voters overall in a three-month period, compared to 85,000 for the entire preceding year.
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states that had been violating the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results.
For example, voter registration applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008.
More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009.
Settlements also recently have been reached in New Mexico and Indiana, and a similar lawsuit was filed in Louisiana in April of this year.
The US Justice Department of Justice also reached an agreement with Rhode Island on voter registration at public assistance and disability offices on March 18, 2011, according to a USDOJ press release obtained by APN.
“I am pleased that officials in Rhode Island worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to reach this agreement, which will ensure that all citizens who apply for public assistance or disability services in Rhode Island will be able to register to vote as easily and conveniently as possible,” Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said.
But Georgia is not taking the same cooperative approach as Rhode Island.
“Unfortunately, we must once again spend taxpayer dollars to defend against a baseless lawsuit. Georgians have my word that we will vigorously fight this and all attempts by organizations to discredit our voter registration and elections procedures,” Kemp said.
Complaints about discriminatory voting practices may be reported to the Voting Section of the USDOJ Civil Rights Division at 1-800-253-3931.
(END / 2011)