Sort by
Press release

Lawsuit Filed to Compel Missouri Public Assistance Agencies to Offer Voter Registration Services

Leading National Advocacy Organizations File Suit to Enforce Federal National Voter Registration Act

Kansas City, MO — The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal have filed a federal lawsuit today charging that the state of Missouri has failed to provide voter registration services to clients of state public assistance agencies, as required by the federal National Voter Registration Act ("NVRA"). The NVRA is a federal law enacted in 1993 to ensure all Americans have access to voter registration services.

The lawsuit alleges the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS) violated the NVRA by failing to provide Ms. O'Neal and thousands of other low-income Missourians with the opportunity to register to vote or change their voter registration address during visits to the offices of DSS agencies.  

In addition the plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction that would require the DSS to come into compliance with the NVRA as soon as the court can set a hearing date.  "Our investigation revealed that DSS is failing to provide hundreds, if not thousands, of low income residents the opportunity to register to vote each day," says Brian Mellor, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. "State officials have the legal responsibility to offer these citizens the opportunity to participate in the democratic process and should be doing so immediately."

The NVRA is commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law, due to its requirement that states provide voter registration opportunities at motor vehicle departments.  The NVRA also requires that voter registration be offered at public assistance agencies when citizens apply for benefits, recertify their eligibility and change their address.

Low-income citizens are among the least likely to own a car and therefore are less likely to register to vote at motor vehicle departments, making the public assistance agency requirement crucial in reaching these citizens. Only 66 percent of adult Missouri citizens in households making less than $25,000 a year were registered to vote in 2006 compared to 85 percent of those in households making $100,000 or more. 

In addition to the first-hand experience of Ms. O'Neal, who was never informed of her right to register at DSS offices, the lawsuit is based on extensive evidence of Missouri's noncompliance with the NVRA, including:

 

 

 

 

  • A report provided to Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in August 2007 documented a substantial decline in the number of voter registration applications submitted by DSS from 1995 to 2006 despite an increase in individuals receiving public assistance. 
  • The report documented that during the same time period, the number of voter registration applications did not decline nearly as much at DMV offices.
  • An investigation conducted in Missouri's four largest counties revealed a lack of compliance with the NVRA in eleven DSS offices. Three offices did not even have any voter registration applications available on site. 
  • Interviews conducted outside public assistance agencies in the four counties revealed that almost no individuals visiting the agencies were offered the opportunity to register as required by the NVRA.
"Missouri lags far behind other states in providing voter registration to low-income citizens," said Brenda Wright, Legal Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.  "Missouri should follow the lead of states such as North Carolina, Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee and bring its DSS offices into compliance with the law."

 

 

 

 

In August 2007, Demos and Project Vote sent a formal notice letter to Deborah Scott, Director of DSS, informing her of the state's violation of the NVRA.  Ms. Scott responded by denying that the state was out of compliance, and declined to develop a plan to remedy the longstanding violations.  Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan sent a letter to DSS detailing the evidence from the Project Vote report that the Department was failing to comply with the NVRA, and offered to assist the Department in doing so.  However, subsequent interviews outside three DSS offices revealed DSS' continued failure to offer voter registration opportunities to clients.

"We put DSS on notice and it failed to act.  Now we are asking the federal court to order DSS into action." said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

 "If state officials can provide voter registration services at [motor vehicle offices] they can follow the law and provide the same service at public assistance agencies," commented Barbara Williams, Missouri ACORN member. "Owning a car should not be a prerequisite to register to vote," Williams added.

 

 

 

The lawsuit developed out of the work of the NVRA Implementation Project, an effort by the non-profit organizations Project Vote, Demos:  A Network for Ideas & Action, and ACORN, to assess and improve the delivery of voter registration services at states' public assistance agencies.  In several states, assistance provided by the Project has led to large increases in the number of low-income citizens registering to vote at public assistance agencies.

The plaintiffs are represented by Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP and Kansas City attorney Arthur A. Benson II.

 To view the complaint, and for more information on the NVRA and voting rights, visit  www.projectvote.org,  www.demos.org or www.lawyerscommittee.org.

###