WASHINGTON, DC– A coalition of national voting rights groups have secured a landmark settlement with the State of Georgia to ensure that voter registration is offered to all public assistance applicants. The state has settled a lawsuit, brought by the coalition on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, alleging widespread violations of Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
Georgia’s Secretary of State and its Department of Human Services (DHS) have agreed to comply with Section 7 of the NVRA, which requires that public assistance agency clients be provided with the opportunity to register to vote every time they apply for or renew benefits, or when they submit a change of address. This includes instances where clients interact with the agency both in person and by remote means (by telephone, internet or mail, for example). The lawsuit alleged that Georgia had been largely ignoring this mandate for many years.
“This settlement is a major step in modernizing our registration system for public assistance applicants, who increasingly interact with agencies through internet-based and telephone transactions,” says Neil Steiner, a partner with the law firm of Dechert LLP. “Voting is a fundamental right in the United States and we are pleased to assist in ensuring that it is available to all those who are eligible.”
The settlement details specific procedures that Georgia must follow for distributing voter registration applications to public assistance clients during in-person and remote transactions. The settlement also includes a variety of measures aimed at promoting and ensuring NVRA compliance, including voter registration training for public assistance employees, data collection, and a requirement that DHS report its voter registration activities to the coalition to help it monitor the implementation and impact of this settlement. The settlement has been submitted to a federal judge for approval.
“This is an important victory for low-income citizens of Georgia,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Registration Program for Project Vote. “Public assistance agencies are a vital component of the voter registration system, and reach citizens who are less likely to register through other means, including seniors and low-income residents. By committing to compliance with the law, Georgia is ensuring that its most vulnerable citizens have the opportunity to make their voices heard.”
“This settlement agreement is a significant step forward for Georgia’s public assistance agencies,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Tens of thousands of Georgia citizens will now have the regular opportunity to register and keep their registration up to date, as Congress intended when it passed the NVRA in 1993.”
Plaintiffs in the case, NAACP v. Kemp, were represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, Dēmos, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Dechert LLP.
“At long last, the state of Georgia will be required to help citizens overcome barriers to the ballot,” said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel at Dēmos. “The statistics speak for themselves: poor Georgians are less likely than the wealthy to make their voices heard. Enforcing the NVRA at public assistance agencies will make a great difference in the fight to right this wrong.”
“This settlement is a positive step in the direction of voter empowerment, and away from the modern movement of voter suppression,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.
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.
“This settlement is a victory for ordinary citizens in Georgia.” said Edward O DuBose President Georgia State Conference NAACP. “It is a major step in the right direction. The right to participate in the voting process is sacred and must never be compromised.”
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 an average of 115,000 per year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2008. More than 380,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Settlements were also reached in New Mexico and Indiana.