Voter registration will be offered at public assistance offices following settlement of lawsuit brought by coalition of voting rights groups
ALBUQUERQUE, NM — A federal judge today approved a consent order requiring New Mexico state officials to implement procedures to ensure that thousands of New Mexico citizens have the opportunity to register to vote at state public assistance offices, as provided by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The consent order resolves a lawsuit brought against state officials by voting rights groups, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote, and Dmos; and by the Albuquerque law firm of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Ives & Duncan, and the law firm of DLA Piper.
The consent order details the specific procedures that New Mexico must follow to offer voter registration to public assistance clients who are applying for benefits, periodically recertifying their benefits eligibility, or submitting a change of address for receipt of benefits. Congress required in the NVRA that these registration opportunities be provided to ensure that all citizens have a fair and equal ability to exercise the fundamental right to vote. The consent order also mandates that New Mexico conduct voter registration training for public assistance employees and that state officials regularly monitor implementation of the order.
"We are pleased that New Mexico has worked with us to come to an agreement that will assure full implementation of the NVRA at public assistance offices," said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. "Because of this settlement, thousands of New Mexico's citizens who have been traditionally disenfranchised now will have the opportunity to register to vote which Congress envisioned when it passed the NVRA in 1993."
The consent order comes on the heels of a December 21, 2010 ruling in which U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera found that New Mexico was violating the NVRA by providing voter registration forms only to those public assistance clients who specifically request to register to vote. The Judge ruled that the NVRA requires that registration forms be provided to clients as a matter of course, unless a client chooses to "opt out" by declining to register in writing. Although the consent order allows the State to appeal this ruling, the order provides that an appellate ruling could only affect a narrow aspect of the procedures put in place by the order, and would not result in the order itself being reopened for further review.
"This agreement was a long time coming, and represents an important victory for the voting rights of low-income residents of New Mexico," said Nicole Zeitler, director of Public Agency Voter Registration at 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."
Prior to the filing of this lawsuit in July 2009, voter registration at public assistance offices in New Mexico had sharply declined from the level achieved shortly after the enactment of the NVRA, despite an increasing number of public assistance clients in the State. In the 2007–2008 reporting period, the number of public assistance clients applying for voter registration had gone down by about 90 percent from the 1995–1996 period and, on average, each public assistance office was registering fewer than ten clients a month. An investigation conducted by Plaintiff's attorneys prior to filing suit revealed that none of the public assistance offices surveyed was regularly offering voter registration to its clients.
"For many years following the NVRA's enactment, New Mexico's Human Services Department failed to provide its clients with the voter registration services to which they are entitled," said Allegra Chapman, counsel at Demos. "We are pleased to see the state agency agree to do the right thing now, and hope to see other states follow suit."
Cynthia Ricketts, Esq., of the Phoenix office of DLA Piper LLP (US) emphasized that "the consent order comes in time for New Mexico's public assistance clients to register to vote in advance of the 2012 election year."
"The consent order is an important step toward increasing the number of registered voters in New Mexico, especially the poor people in this State who historically have been left out of the electoral process," added David Urias of the Albuquerque firm, Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Ives & Duncan. "It is unacceptable that there currently are over half a million unregistered eligible voters in New Mexico."
The lawsuit originally included a claim that New Mexico also was violating the "motor voter" portion of the NVRA. The NVRA requires that state motor vehicle offices provide clients the opportunity to register to vote simultaneous with applying for, or renewing, a driver's license or state identification card. This portion of the litigation was resolved in July 2010 in a settlement that includes similar provisions to those mandated by today's consent order.