Lawsuit filed today to force state social service agencies and election officials to comply with the National Voter Registration
INDIANAPOLIS, IN — Citing clear evidence that Indiana public assistance agencies have violated their federally mandated responsibility to offer tens of thousands of clients the opportunity to register to vote each year, a coalition of voting rights groups filed suit today against officials in Indiana for violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
The suit was filed on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP, and Paris Alexander, an Indiana resident and Food Stamp Program client who was not provided the opportunity to register to vote. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from Project Vote, Demos, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers' Committee), the NAACP, and the ACLU of Indiana, and by the law firms of Miner, Barnhill & Galland and Schwartz, Lichten, & Bright. Defendants include officials from Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), the co-directors of the Indiana Election Division, and the members of the Indiana Election Commission.
The complaint alleges that Indiana public assistance agencies have been virtually ignoring their federal obligations under the NVRA to offer voter registration to all Indiana citizens who apply for public assistance at FSSA offices, including applicants for Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid. Congress mandated that voter registration be offered at public assistance agencies (along with the more familiar "motor voter" requirement that registration be offered at motor vehicle bureaus) to ensure that low-income citizens would have the same opportunity for convenient voter registration as other residents.
The NVRA violations in Indiana 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 also filing suit against the State of New Mexico to ensure compliance with the NVRA. 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.
According to Nicole Kovite, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project for Project Vote, Indiana's NVRA violations contribute to the state having one of the worst registration rates for low-income voters in the nation. In 2008 over 40 percent of low-income voters in Indiana remained unregistered, representing almost 265,000 citizens from households making less than $25,000 a year. "In recent years Indiana has passed new laws making it harder for voters to participate in the democratic process," said Kovite. "Now we have clear evidence that Indiana has also been flouting a federal voting rights law that makes participation easier for low-income Indiana voters."
"Violations of federal law threatening Indiana voters' opportunity to register to vote will not be tolerated," said Jon Greenbaum, Legal Director for the Lawyers' Committee. "Indiana officials failed to heed our initial call to rectify compliance issues at state public assistance agencies and we intend to protect voters' rights to the fullest extent of the law."
In 1995-1996, the first two years the NVRA was implemented, Indiana registered over 80,000 people through public assistance agencies. By the 2007-2008 election cycle, however, registrations through public assistance agencies in Indiana had fallen to only 2,519; despite over 600,000 people per month participating in the Indiana Food Stamp Program alone-just one of the programs covered by the NVRA-voter registration applications collected through all FSSA agencies only averaged approximately 100 per month.
Investigations and surveys cited in the complaint confirm Indiana's widespread noncompliance. A November 2008 Project Vote survey of a number of FSSA offices and clients in Marion and Lake counties found that none of the offices were offering voter registration applications to their clients, and very few even had voter registration forms on their premises. None of the benefits applications collected during the investigation included the required registration materials, and none of the clients interviewed said they had been offered an opportunity to register to vote. Many FSSA staffers were completely unaware of their responsibilities under the NVRA.
"It has been five months since we notified Indiana of the need to remedy these serious voting rights violations," said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. "We urged the state to correct the problem without litigation, but the state's inaction has left us with no choice but to file suit. Indiana should bring its practices into compliance with the law without further delay."
Plaintiffs ACORN and the NAACP both work in Indiana to protect the civil rights of Indiana residents, particularly people of color, and to promote their participation in the democratic process. "Voter registration should primarily be the responsibility of the government," said Jeff Ordower, ACORN's Midwest regional director. "Indiana's noncompliance has not only resulted in thousands of low-income and minority Indiana citizens being denied the opportunity to register to vote, it has also forced ACORN and other groups to expend considerable effort and resources to take up the slack."
"By failing to offer voter registration at FSSA offices, Indiana state officials are making it more difficult for low-income and minority citizens to register to vote," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP. "The State of Indiana must fulfill its obligations under the NVRA. True democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of economic status or race."
"This litigation will expand voter registration opportunities and encourage more citizens to participate in the democratic process," added Angela Ciccolo, Interim General Counsel for the NAACP. "We salute our Indiana State Conference for playing such a vital role in this important work."
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.