ATLANTA, GA. – A coalition of voting rights groups filed suit today against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) Clyde L. Reese III to remedy the State of Georgia's failure to provide voter registration services at state public assistance offices, as required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP (Georgia NAACP) and the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda (Peoples' Agenda). The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP, and the law firm Dechert LLP.
"The State of Georgia has been ignoring its responsibilities under the NVRA for too many years," said Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration program at Project Vote. "The result is that thousands of low-income Georgians have been denied the opportunity to register to vote."
Section 7 of the NVRA requires that all public assistance offices in Georgia distribute a voter registration application each time a client applies for benefits, recertifies, or fills out a change of address form. The lawsuit alleges that Georgia has been largely ignoring this mandate for many years.
According to the Complaint filed in federal district court in Atlanta, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of persons registering to vote at Georgia public assistance offices since the NVRA first took effect in the mid-1990s. During the 1995-1996 reporting period, DHS received more than 100,000 registration applications, but in 2010 the number of registrations had dropped to a mere 4,430. By comparison, in 2009, Georgia, on average, received nearly 70,000 applications each month for just one of the public assistance programs (Food Stamps) covered by the NVRA's voter registration requirements. The Complaint further alleges that the lack of compliance shown by these data was confirmed by recent surveys of public assistance clients conducted at selected public assistance offices in Georgia.
"Georgia 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. "Congress required that public assistance offices serve as voter registration agencies to ensure that low income persons, who historically have been disenfranchised, are given a periodic opportunity to register to vote or update their existing voter registration."
DHS policy and Georgia law both run afoul of the NVRA's requirements. DHS policy has specified that clients who once decline an offer to register to vote should never be offered registration again, which clearly violates the NVRA's requirement that voter registration be offered with each application, recertification, and change of address. Georgia state law only requires that voter registration services be offered to persons completing transactions in person, despite the Department of Justice's instruction that voter registration must be provided for remote transactions as well.
In addition, the Secretary of State has admitted that "DHS did not have consistent NVRA policies" at its public assistance offices. This further indicates the lack of care taken by state officials in ensuring that the NVRA is being properly implemented in Georgia.
"We had hoped to remedy the lack of NVRA enforcement without filing a lawsuit, but voting rights are too important to put on hold," said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.
"When states violate the NVRA, they have the opportunity to take corrective action after receiving notice of the violation," said Allegra Chapman, counsel at Demos. "We had hoped the Secretary's office would want to remedy the violations quickly and efficiently. Because that has not happened, plaintiffs had no other choice but to sue to ensure that, going forward, low-income Georgia citizens receive the voter registration opportunities to which they're entitled."
The Complaint asks the court to ensure that defendants take all necessary action to bring about compliance with the NVRA. This must include proper procedures for distributing voter registration applications, training of public assistance office personnel as to their voter registration responsibilities, and measures to track voter registration data and monitor compliance.
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by voting rights groups have forced other states that had been violating the NVRA to comply, with dramatic results. For example, voter registration 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 2008. More than 200,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Settlements also recently have been reached in New Mexico and Indiana, and a similar lawsuit was filed in Louisiana in April of this year.