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Press release/statement

Massachusetts Failing to Offer Voter Registration to Public Assistance Clients

BOSTON - Citing clear evidence that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is failing to provide low-income residents with a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association sent a pre-litigation notice letter on December 8, 2011 to Secretary of State William F. Galvin, on behalf of New England United for Justice.  The letter was also forwarded to the state’s human services officials.  The letter demands that the secretary immediately act to bring Massachusetts into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) or face litigation. 

Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies, which provide services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), to provide voter registration services to their clients. In the first two years after the NVRA became effective in Massachusetts in 1995, the State registered almost 27,000 people through public assistance agencies.
However, according to evidence cited in the notice letter, the majority of clients seeking these services are no longer being offered voter registration opportunities. For example, in 2009-2010, Massachusetts received only 2007 voter registration applications at public assistance agencies, a 92.6% drop from the peak at the time of the NVRA’s implementation.
Significantly and contrary to the norm, a lower percentage of low-income Massachusetts residents were registered to vote in 2008, a presidential year, than in other years.  In fact, among all states, Massachusetts had the sixth lowest turnout rate among its low-income citizens that year.  Field investigations have found that public assistance clients around the state are not being provided with voter registration applications, contrary to the requirements of the NVRA.
"It is clear that frontline workers are not providing low-income residents with voter registration opportunities and that Massachusetts is not complying with the NVRA.  It is especially shocking that the voter registration of this population was just as low during the historic 2008 presidential election as in other years," said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos.
According to the notice letter, Massachusetts’ policies and practices run afoul of the NVRA's requirements. The NVRA requires agencies to affirmatively offer voter registration with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction. However, Massachusetts requires distribution of a voter registration application only when the applicant makes an affirmative request for one. According to field investigations, fewer than 70% of clients are offered voter registration in any way whatsoever.
”The Commonwealth has missed a great opportunity to empower all of its citizens to be fully engaged in the political process” said Rahsaan Hall, Deputy Director of the Boston affiliate of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.  “We are hopeful that the officials of the Commonwealth will do their best to rectify these deficiencies and come into compliance with the NVRA.”
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by some of the same voting rights groups have forced other states that had been disregarding the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, 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 2009. Over 360,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were recently settled in New Mexico and Indiana, and other cases are pending in Georgia and Louisiana.
“Public agency registration is essential because it reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled,” says Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “It’s important, it’s effective, and it’s the law.”
In the letter, the voting rights groups advised that they are ready to work with state officials to bring the state into full compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Massachusetts residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.