Voting rights groups sue NM officials for failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act
SANTA FE, NM — Citing clear evidence that New Mexico public assistance agencies and moter vehicle offices have violated their federally mandated responsibility to offer tens of thousands of New Mexicans each year the opportunity to register to vote, a coalition of voting rights groups filed suit today against officials in New Mexico for violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
The Complaint was filed on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and on behalf of four New Mexico residents who were denied the opportunity to register to vote when they went to a state agency to obtain public assistance benefits or obtain a driver's license or state identification card. The plaintiffs are represented by voting rights groups Project Vote, Demos, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers' Committee), as well as by the laws firms of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg & Ives, DLA Piper U.S., and Schwartz, Lichten and Bright. Defendants named in the suit include New Mexico's Secretary of State, Mary Herrera, and officials from the New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD), the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division, and the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department.
The NVRA violations in New Mexico are part of an ongoing national problem involving a failure by many states to provide the voter registration opportunities mandated by the statute. Today, the same coalition of voting rights groups is filing suit against the State of Indiana to remedy NVRA violations in that state. Last month the groups settled their NVRA lawsuit against the State of Missouri, a lawsuit against the State of Ohio is ongoing, and pre-litigation letters have been sent notifying California, Colorado, and New Jersey that lawsuits may be necessary if they do not bring their voter registration programs into compliance. In 2008, investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice forced both Arizona and Illinois to take steps to improve NVRA compliance.
A U.S. Election Assistance Commission report to Congress on the impact of the NVRA, released June 30th, confirms that poor implementation of public agency registration is a widespread problem. In 2007–2008 public assistance agencies nationwide collected less than a million voter registration applications, compared to 2.6 million collected in 1995–1996, the first two years the law was in effect. Numerous states report assisting so few clients that their compliance with the NVRA is clearly in doubt. Seven states failed to report any data regarding voter registration in public assistance agencies, and several other states submitted incomplete or problematic data, which voting rights groups say are indicative of compliance problems.
"The NVRA was enacted to ensure that states affirmatively provide all citizens an equal opportunity to register to vote," says Nicole Kovite, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. "By ignoring this vital law, New Mexico is denying this right to thousands of its residents every year."
New Mexico resident Roanna Begay, for example, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, would like to register to vote, and would have done so at the public assistance office if she had been offered the opportunity. The NVRA requires that she should have been given that opportunity when she first applied for Food Stamps more than two years ago, and every six months since then when she has recertified her Food Stamps eligibility, but no one at the agency office has ever informed Begay of this right.
"Ms. Begay's experience is hardly unique: approximately 415,000 New Mexico residents who were eligible to vote in 2008 were unregistered, yet the numbers of applications originating in state public assistance agencies and MVD offices have been dismal," says Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. "New Mexico can and should do much better."
"The widespread violations of the NVRA by New Mexico officials are undermining state residents' opportunity to register to vote and will not be tolerated," said Jon Greenbaum, Legal Director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "Although we have written to state officials on multiple occasions notifying them of the problems, New Mexico has failed to take the necessary corrective actions and we intend to protect voters' rights to the fullest extent of the law."
Despite steady participation in the Food Stamps Program — just one of the most widely used public assistance programs covered by the NVRA — the number of voter registrations completed at New Mexico public assistance offices has declined by about 90% from 1995–1996 to 2007–2008. In 2007 the average number of adult participants in the Food Stamp program alone was over 103,000, but HSD averaged only 134 registration applications per month. Project Vote investigations of six HSD offices in January 2009 revealed that none of the offices provided voter registration application forms to their clients as part of the benefits application. In interviews with 42 clients who had conducted transactions triggering the NVRA's voter registration obligations, only one individual had received a voter registration application.
Performance by MVD offices has also been poor. According to the most recent EAC report, only 2,765 voter registration applications were received through MVD sites during 2007–2008. These numbers are "woefully inadequate," according to Project Vote, especially considering that states with a comparable population routinely register substantially more people through their motor vehicle offices. An astonishing eighty percent of MVD offices investigated by Project Vote were found to be violating the NVRA, and investigations showed that MVD staff often were unaware of, or were misinformed about, their responsibilities under the NVRA.
"New Mexico's failure to follow the law has resulted in an increased burden on third-party registration drives to take up the slack in disenfranchised communities," said Clayton Kennedy, New Mexico ACORN head organizer. "Voter registration should first and foremost be the responsibility of the government, not third-party voter registration drives."
The voting rights groups estimate that proper implementation nationwide of the NVRA's public assistance provisions could result in 2-3 million additional registrations per year. For example, following a court order in the groups' Missouri lawsuit, voter registration applications submitted at the state's public assistance offices skyrocketed from fewer than 8,000 a year to more than 100,000 in just eight months.