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Suit Claims Massachusetts Fails To Provide Mandated Voter Registration Help

The National Law Journal

Public interest groups have sued three Massachusetts officials in Boston federal court, claiming the state has failed to help public assistance recipients register to vote, in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The law, better known as the Motor Voter Act, requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance.

On May 15, NAACP-New England Area Conference, New England United for Justice and named plaintiff Bethzaida Delgado filed the case, Delgado v. Galvin, in the District of Massachusetts.

The defendants are William Galvin, secretary of state; JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services; and Daniel Curley, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance.

Similar cases initiated by advocacy groups or the Justice Department have been filed in seven other states since September 2006: Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.

Delgado of Lowell, Mass., receives food stamps through a program administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance and Medicaid through the MassHealth program administered by the state's health agency. She has been receiving these benefits for the past 10 years and previously received cash assistance, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that Delgado "cannot recall ever being offered the opportunity to register to vote during a visit to a [Department of Transitional Assistance] office or through any of her interactions with MassHealth enrollment centers."

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, including a court-approved plan requiring state agencies to ensure that public assistance recipients get the opportunity to register to vote or to change their voter registration addresses to enable them to vote in the 2012 federal election. They also seek attorney fees and costs.

Several voting rights groups are representing the plaintiffs, including Demos; Project Vote; the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and the Boston-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. Ropes & Gray of Boston is also representing the plaintiffs pro bono.

"The animating idea behind the legislation is to reach people at the government offices they visit," said Lisa Danetz, a senior counsel at Demos. The law requires state agencies that give public assistance to also help people fill out voter registration forms, she said. "It's not just about putting a stack of forms on a counter. Federal law requires an affirmative ask. There are lots of people in Massachusetts and around the country who are not being offered those services that federal law says they should be getting."

Ken Felter, an intellectual property and litigation partner at Ropes & Gray, said it's particularly important "to get low-income individuals registered in time so they can exercise their franchise in time for the federal election in November."

Bob Kengle, co-director of the voting rights project of the Washington-based Lawyers Committee, said, "There's a private right of action under the statute that allows private plaintiffs to go in and enforce the statute. That provision is there for exactly this kind of situation."

In an e-mailed statement, Massachusetts Health and Human Services spokesperson Alec Loftus said, "Voting is one of the most important civic duties, and helping people comply is one of our top priorities. We have received the complaint and are in the process of reviewing it."

Spokesperson Brian McNiff of the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office said the office "does not comment on matters that are before the court." The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance did not respond to a request for comment.

"This has been a pretty common problem around the country," Danetz said. She said Demos and other advocacy groups have filed suits and obtained settlements in Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and New Mexico since September 2006. In June 2008, the Justice Department entered into a prelitigation agreement with Arizona , followed by an agreement that December with Illinois, Danetz said.

The Justice Department has filed two cases in recent years. Its March 2011 lawsuit against Rhode Island was followed by a consent decree the same month.

It followed with a similar case against Louisiana last July that's still pending in the Middle District of Louisiana.

That lawsuit followed an April 2011 private case filed by Project Vote, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Inc. and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Earlier this month, District Judge Jane Milazzo of the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled that the voting law requires that all public assistance clients must receive a voter registration application whether they apply for benefits in person or through the Internet, telephone or mail.