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A Win For Low Income Voters' Rights In Missouri

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In a sweeping order issued yesterday, United States District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey directed the Missouri Department of Social Services to comply immediately with a federal law requiring agencies to provide voter registration applications and assistance to their clients. It is a significant recent development in a national campaign we at Demos have been conducting with our partners at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote to ensure states comply with the National Voter Registration Act's requirement that states offer voter registration in public assistance agencies. Fifteen years after NVRA passed Congress, many states are still ignoring their duty to low-income voters. Recent research and field investigations have indicated that states throughout the country are neglecting their responsibility to offer voter registration at public assistance offices.

On July 9, 2008, we joined colleagues at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Dewey LeBouef LLP in presenting plaintiffs' evidence at a one-day preliminary injunction hearing on Missouri's failure to provide voter registration at public assistance agencies. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Missouri ACORN and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal, alleges that the state's Department of Social Services (DSS) and several local boards of election are violating the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 ("NVRA"), which requires state public assistance offices to provide voter registration opportunities with each application for benefits, recertification or change of address. Click here to see the Complaint.

Just six days after the hearing, Judge Laughrey, of the Western District of Missouri, issued an order granting plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and ordering DSS to immediately begin following the NVRA's requirements. Among other things, the Court found the following:

The number of voter registration applications received from Missouri public assistance agencies declined 89 percent between 1995-1996 and 2005-2006, from 143,134 registrations to only 15,568. At the same time, the average number of households receiving Food Stamps increased from 238,699 in fiscal year 1995 to 300,498 households in fiscal year 2006.

DSS simply did not possess the number of voter registration forms necessary for compliance with the law from 2003-2008. As a result, over 1 million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered the required voter registration services.

A DSS internal investigation concluded that half the counties in a 21-county survey were not routinely providing voter registration to DSS clients, that five of the remaining ten provided them only "sporadically;" and that one did not provide them at all. Despite these findings, the agency failed to take any corrective action.

Internal emails at DSS showed 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 agency introduced no evidence at the hearing to show that these applications had been filed with the local election authorities or that it had taken any corrective action.

Testimony from DSS employees established "significant lapses in NVRA compliance" due to a lack of monitoring and internal reporting and failure to take corrective action when employees fail to offer the service. The court found that "[b]ecause there is no effective way to determine whether DSS employees are complying with the NVRA and there is no consequence for failure to comply, it is not surprising that there have been lapses in DSS compliance with the NVRA."

Judge Laughrey issued much of the relief requested by plaintiffs, represented by Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dewey & LeBouef, and Project Vote, and Kansas City attorney Arthur A. Benson. In addition to requiring DSS to immediately comply with the law, the Court ordered that, within five days, DSS must send a notice to agency staff informing them that they must comply with the NVRA and that "failure to comply with [the court's] order will subject the Department of Social Services to citation for contempt of court. You are directed that compliance with the NVRA is mandatory." The Court further ordered the agency to implement a monitoring system, identify employees responsible for NVRA compliance in each local office, and prospectively offer the opportunity to register to vote to each client who has visited the office without receiving the mandated service.

Judge Laughrey's order sets an important precedent that should encourage all states to begin complying with the NVRA's requirements. Some states, such as North Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia have worked cooperatively with us to develop and implement corrective plans without reversion to court action. It is our hope that, with this most recent order in place, more states will fall into line with the statute's requirements.

Allegra Chapman, Counsel, and Scott Novakowski, Senior Policy Analyst
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