Voters' Groups File Suit Against Pennsylvania's Departments of State, Public Welfare and Health

The state isn't fulfilling its obligation to offer voter registration forms to poor and disabled people, according to a lawsuit announced Friday by the Black Political Empowerment Project and a Philadelphia group.

Pittsburgh-based BPEP and the Pennsylvania Communities Organizing for Change, both of which register voters, sued the secretaries of the departments of State, Public Welfare and Health, saying they are violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of U.S. District Court, demands that the state offer registration help to those seeking public assistance and suffering from disabilities.

During the years 1995 and 1996, the complaint said, the state's public assistance offices registered 59,462 voters, but during 2009 and 2010 -- the end of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration -- they logged just 4,179 new voters.

Spot checks conducted by the organizations this year suggest the departments' efforts aren't improving under Gov. Tom Corbett, said the complaint. The organizations visited Philadelphia and Allegheny County assistance offices, among others, and found "no voter registration applications on site at all," it said.

Noting that a presidential election is looming, the groups want fast action by the court to force the agencies to offer voter registration forms to applicants.

We will defend this vigorously," said Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman. "Concerns have been raised for a number of years about NVRA compliance. ... Both the prior administration and this administration believe we are in compliance. "

Attorneys with the progressive organizations Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote the complaint.