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Press release/statement

Missouri Department of Social Services Agrees to Settlement Ensuring Voter Registration Opportunities for Low-Income Voters

Settlement Follows July 2008 Federal Court Injunction Finding Widespread Violations of National Voter Registration Act

Kansas City, MO — Low-income voters in Missouri will see increased access to voter registration at Missouri public assistance offices as a result of a settlement agreement filed today in federal district court.

The settlement concludes a lawsuit filed against the Department of Social Services (DSS) in April 2008 by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and St. Louis resident Dionne O'Neal charging widespread violations of the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). United States District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey had previously issued a preliminary injunction in July 2008 directing DSS immediately to comply with the NVRA's requirement that DSS offices provide voter registration applications and assistance to their clients.

"Over 100,000 low-income Missouri citizens already have registered to vote at public assistance offices in the few short months since the Court ordered Missouri DSS to follow the law. Today's settlement confirms that DSS now will be a partner in ensuring the voting rights of all Missouri citizens, fulfilling a key goal of the NVRA," said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos and counsel for plaintiffs. "Other states across the country that have ignored the voting rights of low-income citizens for far too long should take note of Missouri's example and bring their practices into compliance with the law."

"This case demonstrates the potential difference that the NVRA can make in enfranchising our poorest citizens," stated Jon Greenbaum, legal director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel for plaintiffs. "If every state registered its public assistance clients at the rate Missouri has since last year's court order, several million citizens would be registered through public assistance agencies every year instead of the few hundred thousand that are now being registered. We hope that DSS will relate its experiences to its counterparts in the other states."

The court ruling that led to today's settlement cited "substantial evidence" of voting rights violations, including:

  • State documents confirming that over one million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because DSS did not order enough of the forms it is required to give each client;
  • Field surveys by plaintiffs of agency offices showing that offices were not offering voter registration;
  • E-mails from a DSS employee acknowledging that half the counties in a 21-county survey were not routinely providing voter registration to DSS clients;
  • E-mails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to the local election authority for processing.

"The nationwide neglect of the NVRA's public agency registration requirements has increased the burden on third-party registration drives to take up the slack in disenfranchised communities," said Jeff Ordower, Missouri ACORN head organizer. "ACORN is proud to have been part of this remarkable success in Missouri, which provides a timely reminder that governments, not third-party drives, are the most effective way to bring millions of low-income Americans into the electorate."

The settlement agreement requires each DSS office to collect and report detailed monthly data on the numbers of persons visiting DSS offices, their responses to voter registration inquiries, the numbers of voter registrations completed and submitted to local election authorities, and other key information, and to provide this data monthly to plaintiffs' counsel. It also requires designation of an NVRA coordinator at each local DSS office as well as a statewide DSS coordinator; mandatory training of employees in voter registration duties using a uniform training program; and evaluation of voter registration compliance as part of employee and office evaluation. DSS also is required to provide voter registration applications with regular mailings to clients and in connection with transactions by phone or internet, and to follow up with clients to provide voter registration services whenever it determines that a particular individual was not offered voter registration during a benefits transaction.

"With growing agreement on the need to improve voter registration in the United States, it is important to note that those least likely to be registered are low- to moderate-income Americans," said Nicole Kovite, director of Project Vote's Public Agency Voter Registration Project. "This case illustrates how state governments can and should take the lead in reducing this disparity by fully implementing the public agency requirements of the NVRA."

"We are pleased to have worked with Missouri officials to reach a resolution of the important issues in this case. We appreciate Missouri's commitment to ensuring that citizens on public assistance will be afforded a greater opportunity to register to vote and participate in the democratic process," said John Nonna, a partner of Dewey & LeBoeuf who led the firm's team working on the case.

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