Washington, DC – Citing clear evidence that Alabama public assistance agencies are violating their federally-mandated responsibilities to offer tens of thousands of public assistance clients opportunities to register to vote, today attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a pre-litigation notice letter to the Alabama Secretary of State on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.
The letter details violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and demands that the Secretary act immediately to bring the state into full compliance with the law or face litigation. The groups forwarded copies of the letter to the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) and Medicaid Agency.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies that administer federal programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), and Medicaid to provide voter registration services to their applicants and clients.
According to U.S. Election Assistance Commission data, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Alabama public assistance offices decreased by more than 75% from its peak in 1995-1996 to the most recent reporting period of 2009-2010. This drop in voter registrations is particularly significant given that the number of initial food stamp applications in Alabama during the same time frame increased by 60%.
Evidence cited in the notice letter strongly suggests that Alabama’s serious and widespread violations of the NVRA are responsible for the severe reduction in voter registration at its public agencies. The vast majority of DHR and Medicaid applicants and clients are not being offered voter registration opportunities, and many agency offices do not even have voter registration applications on hand.
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.
"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 Adam Lioz, counsel at Demos. "Right now, Alabama 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 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. More than 360,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases settled recently in New Mexico, Indiana, and Georgia will add to these totals.
“Alabama is neglecting a serious responsibility to its low-income residents,” said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. “Every year, the NAACP spends more and more resources to pick up the slack by running voter registration drives in our communities. Now we’re taking action to hold the state accountable for doing its part.”
“Alabama 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, Alabama officials have not prioritized this responsibility without the prospect of litigation.”
“When done properly, 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 Alabama officials to bring the State into full compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.