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 26,984 (1999-2000) to 2,007 in 2009-2010–a 92.5 percent decrease. In response, on December 8, 2011, Demos, Project Vote and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a notice letter to the Massachusetts Secretary of State on behalf of New England United for Justice (“NEUFJ”) 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; (iii) accept completed voter registration application forms and forward them to the appropriate election official.
The failure of Massachusetts public assistance agencies to comply with the NVRA negatively impacted New England United for Justice, the NAACP – New England Area Conference, and Bethzaida Delgado. Ms. Delgado, a qualified Massachusetts 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, the NAACP – New England Area Conference and NEUFJ had to spend their limited resources registering voters who would have been registered by the state had Massachusetts been meeting its voter registration obligations. For example, NEUFJ conducted registration drives at public assistance offices. These and other efforts by the NAACP and NEUFJ aimed at remedying the voter registration gap caused by the state forced the organizations to divert resources that would otherwise be expended on different voter education and voter registration activities.
In May 2012, after the state failed to remedy the problems identified in the December 2011 notice letter, the Massachusetts Secretary of State and the agencies that administer public assistance - the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) were sued on evidence that the public assistance agencies overseen by DTA and EOHHS were not providing voter registration services as required by Section 7 of the NVRA. MassHealth was added as a defendant in 2014.
In July 2012, the defendant agencies agreed to pre-election relief which included mailing voter registration applications to tens of thousands of Massachusetts citizens who had not received the required voter registration services in 2011 and 2012. 31,453 previously unregistered persons successfully used this mailing to register to vote. On June 15, 2015, the parties reached a final settlement requiring that the agencies and Secretary make comprehensive improvements in the procedures for collecting and processing voter registration applications. For example, DTA agreed to: automatically distribute voter registration applications to citizens who engage with public assistance agencies, provide language assistance to clients completing voter registration applications, deliver of voter registration applications to local election officials, and provide regular oversight and reporting to ensure that DTA employees provide the voter registration services required by the NVRA. In total, as a result of our intervention, the number of voter registrations collected by Massachusetts public assistance agencies increased by an estimated 92,000.
The NAACP - New England Area Conference, New England United for Justice, and Bethzaida Delgado
Demos’ co-counsel were Project Vote, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and Ropes and Gray, LLP