WASHINGTON, DC – In a strongly worded order handed down yesterday, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr. denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a coalition of voting rights groups to remedy the State of Georgia’s failure to provide voter registration services at public assistance offices, as required by Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
Judge Pannell ruled that, contrary to the state’s practice, the NVRA requires that public assistance agency clients be provided with the opportunity to receive a voter registration application every time they apply for or renew benefits or submit a change of address. This must include instances where clients interact with the agency by remote means (e.g., by telephone, internet or mail). In addition, Judge Pannell found that, to the extent that Georgia’s public assistance agencies do not presumptively distribute voter registration applications (and, instead, require clients to request them affirmatively), that the State is likely violating the NVRA.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires that all public assistance offices in Georgia distribute a voter registration application each time a client applies for benefits, recertifies, or fills out a change of address form, unless the client declines an application in writing. The lawsuit alleges that Georgia has been largely ignoring this mandate for many years.
“The court has ensured that low-income people will not lose access to voter registration services simply as a result of advancing technology,” said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos. “Judge Pannell rightly understands that the NVRA’s requirements are not limited to in-person visits at public assistance offices.”
“We are pleased that the court has recognized the serious shortcomings with Georgia’s efforts to comply with the NVRA,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “Judge Pannell’s decision highlights the need for the State to take significant and meaningful steps toward reforming its current system to ensure that public assistance clients are afforded the voter registration opportunities mandated by the NVRA.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, and Fulton County resident Craig Murphy. The Plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Dēmos, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and the law firm of Dechert LLP. The Court dismissed Mr. Murphy as an individual plaintiff, but noted that the suit could continue on behalf of the organizational Plaintiffs.
“We intend to move forward expeditiously to ensure all Georgians are provided the opportunity to register to vote in the upcoming elections,” said Neil Steiner of Dechert LLP.
As discussed in Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint filed in federal district court in Atlanta, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of persons registering to vote at Georgia public assistance offices since the NVRA first took effect in the mid-1990s. During the 1995-1996 reporting period, DHS received over 100,000 registration applications, but in 2010 the number of registrations had dropped to a mere 4,430. By comparison, in 2009, Georgia, on average, received nearly 70,000 applications each month for just one of the public assistance programs (Food Stamps) covered by the NVRA’s voter registration requirements.
“Today’s ruling affirms what Plaintiffs have maintained throughout this litigation: that the State of Georgia is violating the NVRA and denying thousands of low-income residents the opportunity to register to vote,” said Niyati Shah, Election Counsel for Project Vote.
“The ACLU applauds the court’s decision,” said Laughlin McDonald, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “The order implements Congress’ decision to facilitate voter registration and political participation for all Americans.”
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states that had been violating the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, voter registration applications from Missouri public assistance agencies skyrocketed, from fewer than 8,000 a year to over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Settlements also recently have been reached in New Mexico and Indiana, and a similar lawsuit was filed in Louisiana in April of 2011.