New York - Attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a pre-litigation notice letter on Monday to the Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth charging that the state is failing to provide low-income residents with a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote. The groups demand that the secretary immediately act to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) or face litigation.
The letter, sent on behalf of the Black Political Empowerment Project, was also forwarded to Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare and Department of Health officials.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies to provide voter registration services to their clients. According to U.S. Election Assistance Commission data, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Pennsylvania public assistance offices decreased by 93% in recent years, from 59,462 in 1995-1996 to just 4,179 in 2009-2010. This drop in voter registrations is particularly significant given that the number of initial food stamp applications in Pennsylvania during the same time frame nearly doubled.
Evidence cited in the notice letter suggests that the reason for this reduction lies with the Commonwealth. The majority of clients seeking public assistance services are simply not being offered voter registration opportunities.
"Congress passed the NVRA so that low-income citizens would have easily accessible voter registration opportunities. It is clear that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not complying with that mandate. In a major election year, that is particularly egregious," said Dave Rubino, counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos.
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, Indiana and, just last week, Georgia.
“The Commonwealth has a duty to its citizens which is simply not being met,” said Tim Stevens, Chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project. “We are hopeful that the officials of the Commonwealth will rectify this situation so that low-income citizens, the disabilities community, and minority residents of Pennsylvania can fully participate in the political process. The mission of B-PEP remains to encourage African Americans to vote in each and every election.”
“Pennsylvania public officials must take seriously their legal responsibility to provide voter registration services to the State’s public assistance clients,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “As we have seen in other states, these responsibilities have not been given their rightful priority without the prospect of litigation.”
“When done appropriately, public agency registration is one of the most effective means of ensuring that all citizens are offered the opportunity to participate in their government,” says Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “It reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled.”
In the letter, the voting rights groups advised that they are ready to work with Commonwealth officials to bring the Commonwealth into full compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Pennsylvania residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.
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