LAS VEGAS, Nev – On Monday, a coalition of national voting rights groups filed a Complaint against Secretary of State Ross Miller and Director of the department of Health & Human Services, Michael Willden in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. The Complaint alleges that the state has systematically failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Since its 1993 enactment, the NVRA has helped ensure that low-income residents receive an opportunity to register to vote by mandating that all public assistance agencies offer voter registration services.
Plaintiffs include the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Las Vegas Branch of the NAACP (Las Vegas NAACP), and Reno-Sparks Branch of the NAACP (Reno-Sparks NAACP), all of whom conduct voter registration activities in the state. They are represented by Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, and the law firms Woodburn and Wedge and Dechert LLP.
"Right now, Nevada is failing its citizens and preventing too many of the 99 percent from registering to vote, giving the 1 percent further sway over our democracy."
Specifically, the Complaint alleges that, based on Nevada’s own submissions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Nevada public assistance offices decreased by a staggering 95% in recent years, from 39,444 in 1999-2000 to just 1,677 in 2009-2010. This steep decline in voter registrations is particularly significant because it occurred during the same period that both the population of the state and the number of applicants for public assistance were increasing.
The factual allegations in the Complaint show that fault for this reduction lies with the state. The majority of clients seeking public assistance services are simply not being offered voter registration opportunities, and many public assistance agencies do not even have the voter registration forms available on request. Indeed, a recent survey of 51 individuals leaving public assistance offices showed that four of the five people who specifically requested in writing to register to vote were not given voter registration applications. As a result of the state’s failures, the Plaintiffs are forced to expend resources helping to register citizens who would otherwise be registered by the state.
"The freedom to vote is how Americans, regardless of class or race, maintain power over decisions that affect their lives, and government must vigorously promote that freedom through the NVRA," said Dave Rubino, counsel at Demos. "Right now, Nevada is failing its citizens and preventing too many of the 99 percent from registering to vote, giving the 1 percent further sway over our democracy."
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by 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 more than 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2009. More than 360,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were also recently settled in New Mexico, Indiana and, just last month, Georgia. Low-income populations greatly benefit from the accessibility to voter registration that public agencies provide and these people shouldn’t have to jump through additional hoops to register,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “Our surveys outside public assistance offices showed that virtually no one had been given the opportunity to register."
“Public assistance offices are in a unique position to increase voter registration rates among low-income citizens, the disabled and racial minorities,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “Nevada should realize this potential and correct the inadequacies within its system.”
The national coalition had been attempting to work with the state collaboratively on NVRA compliance for a number of years. Only when it became clear that the state would not voluntarily come into compliance prior to the voter registration deadline for this year's elections did the group opt to take legal action. Among other things, the Complaint seeks an order directing defendants, under a court-approved plan, to take all actions necessary to remedy the past and continuing violations of Section 7 of the NVRA.
"To empower those without a voice is our most important work and we will continue to fight to allow those without great wealth to speak truth to power," said Reno Sparks Branch NAACP President Lonnie Feemster. "Full participation in the electorial process empowers the poor and disadvantaged."
"We are thrilled to again be working with the Lawyer's Committee, Demos and Project Vote to ensure that all eligible citizens are encouraged to exercise their fundamental right to vote and to participate in the electoral process," said Neil Steiner, a partner with Dechert LLP who was also counsel in the Ohio and Georgia cases.
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