DETROIT - - Citing evidence that the State of Michigan is failing to provide low-income residents with a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), and the NAACP sent a pre-litigation notice letter on to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, on behalf of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP.
The letter demands that the Secretary immediately act to bring Michigan into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) or face litigation.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies, which provide services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, to provide voter registration services to their clients. In the first two years after the NVRA became effective in Michigan in 1995, the State registered more than 79,500 people through public assistance agencies.
However, according to evidence cited in the notice letter, the local offices of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) have largely disregarded this law in recent years. For example, looking at registration data for 2005-2006 and 2007-2008, there was an 82.5% decrease in the number of voter registration applications submitted through public assistance agencies in Michigan – even though 2008 included a historic presidential election for which high voter registration at public assistance agencies would be expected. Field investigations found that public assistance clients around the state are not being provided with voter registration applications, contrary to the requirements of the NVRA.
"It is clear that frontline workers are not providing low-income residents with voter registration opportunities, and that Michigan is not complying with the NVRA. This fact is especially shocking from a state agency that has recognized voter registration as part of its core mission of client empowerment," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos.
According to the notice letter, Michigan’s policies and practices run afoul of the NVRA's requirements. The NVRA requires agencies to affirmatively offer voter registration with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction. However, for a vast majority of interactions, Michigan requires distribution of a voter registration application only when the applicant makes an affirmative request for one and, in addition, the offer of voter registration is buried deep within the benefits application where clients are unlikely to see it. Furthermore, according to the field investigations, three out of four clients who do request a voter registration application fail to receive one.
"Michigan's public assistance agencies can and must provide voter registration services," said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. "Congress included Section 7 in the NVRA to ensure that traditionally disenfranchised citizens, including low-income persons, have a periodic opportunity to register or update their registration when they do business with DHS. It is crucial for Michigan’s officials to take this responsibility seriously."
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by the same voting rights groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, 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 2009. Almost 290,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were recently settled in New Mexico and Indiana, and other cases are pending in Georgia and Louisiana.
“Public agency registration is essential because it reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled,” says Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “It’s important, it’s effective, and it’s the law.”
“By failing to offer voter registration at the Michigan Department of Human Services offices, Michigan state officials are making it more difficult for low-income and minority citizens to register to vote,” said NAACP General Counsel Kim M. Keenan. “The State of Michigan must fulfill its obligations under the NVRA. True democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of race.”
In the letter, the voting rights groups advised that they are ready to work with state officials to bring the state into full compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Michigan residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt today approved the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought against Indiana officials to bring the State into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”).
The settlement requires that Indiana implement specific measures to assure that thousands of low-income residents have the opportunity to register to vote at state public assistance offices, as mandated by the NVRA.
The suit was brought by the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP on behalf of all state public assistance clients injured by the State’s violation of federal law.
Plaintiff and the class are represented by attorneys from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Demos, the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, the NAACP, and the ACLU of Indiana.
The NVRA requires that state public assistance agencies offer voter registration to their clients when clients apply for benefits, and when they recertify or submit a change of address.
The State already began implementation of the settlement prior to its approval by Judge Pratt, and the number of persons submitting registration applications through state public assistance offices in recent months has increased substantially. Monthly average registration applications are now approximately 4,800, compared to only about 100 prior to the filing of the lawsuit in July 2009.
“We are pleased that Indiana has agreed to resolve this litigation through settlement,” said Barbara Bolling, President of the Indiana NAACP. “This is an important step forward to ensuring that all Indiana residents have the opportunity to register to vote and participate in elections in our State.”
The settlement sets forth the procedures that Indiana must follow for distributing voter registration applications to public assistance clients, both in its in-person transactions with these clients and in those transactions that occur by mail, over the telephone, and through the internet. The settlement also institutes a variety of measures aimed at promoting and ensuring compliance, including training, data collection, and monitoring.
“We look forward to working with Indiana officials as they implement the settlement agreement,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “Thousands of Indiana’s citizens who have been traditionally disenfranchised now will have the opportunity to register to vote, as Congress envisioned when it passed the NVRA in 1993.”
“This agreement was a long time coming, and represents an important victory for the voting rights of Indiana’s low-income residents,” said Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program at Project Vote. “Public assistance agencies are a vital component of the voter registration system, and reach citizens who are less likely to register through other means.”
“Indiana’s example underscores that many states throughout the country are liable to being sued because of their failure to properly implement voter registration at state public assistance offices, as required by the NVRA,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. “We stand ready to initiate litigation in many additional states that have not fully complied with the NVRA’s requirements for assistance.”
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by the same voting rights groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, 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 2009. Almost 290,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Another case recently was settled in New Mexico, and cases are pending in Georgia and Louisiana.