Case Background

Through public records review and multiple field investigations, it was determined that public assistance clients were not receiving voter registration services when applying for, renewing, or recertifying their benefits, or updating their addresses with the state’s public assistance agencies. Data showing the number of voter registration applications submitted at public assistance offices also indicated that agencies were not meeting their voter registration obligations: over a 10 year period the number of voter registration applications submitted reduced– from 143,135 at the peak (1995-1996) to 15,568 in 2005-2006. At this time, 66 percent of citizens in households making less than $15,000 reported being registered to vote compared to 81 percent of citizens in households making $75,000 or more. In response, on October 12, 2007, Demos and Project Vote sent a notice letter to the Department of Social Services and to the Department of Health and Senior Services on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) informing the state that its public assistance offices were failing to provide the voter registration services required under Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Section 7 of the NVRA states that each public assistance office must, at a minimum (i) distribute voter registration application forms; (ii) assist applicants in completing the voter registration forms; and (iii) accept completed voter registration application forms and forward them to the appropriate election official.

The failure of Missouri public assistance agencies to comply with the NVRA negatively impacted ACORN and ACORN member Dionne O’Neil. Ms. O’Neil, a resident of St. Louis and a qualified Missouri voter, had not been provided with voter registration services when interacting with the state’s public assistance agencies. Her experiences were shared by individuals residing across the state. In order to remedy the state’s failure to provide such services, ACORN had to spend time and hundreds of thousands of dollars registering voters who would have been registered by the state had Missouri been meeting its voter registration obligations. These efforts diverted resources needed for community organizing, issues campaigns, and other programs critical to ACORN’s mission.

In April 2008, after the state failed to remedy the problems identified in the October 2007 letter, ACORN sued the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS), the Family Support Division (FSD), the Board of Election Commissioners in Kansas City, Jackson County and St. Louis City.

During litigation, substantial evidence of voting rights violations was uncovered, including state documents confirming that over one million food stamp applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because DSS did not order a sufficient number of forms to distribute to each client, e-mails from a DSS employee acknowledging that half the counties in a 21-county survey were failing to routinely provide voter registration to DSS clients, and e-mails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being submitted to election officials for processing.

In August 2008, the district court held an evidentiary hearing and granted Plaintiffs’ a preliminary injunction that required Missouri public assistance agencies to make improvements to their voter registration procedures in advance of the November 2008 election. In June 2009, a settlement agreement was reached that established improvements to public agency voter registration practices and safeguards to ensure voter registration obligations were being met. Among its terms, the settlement agreement required the designation of a NVRA coordinators to oversee NVRA compliance at DSS and FSD, data reporting to ensure that the agencies were meeting their NVRA obligations, and regular performance evaluations. As a result of the legal intervention, the number of voter registrations collected by Missouri public assistance agencies increased by an estimated 245,000.


Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), St. Louis resident Dionne O’Neil


Project Vote, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, and Arthur Benson & Associates