Philadelphia, PA – Today, the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) and ACTION United filed suit against Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, Secretary of Public Welfare, Gary D. Alexander and Secretary of Health, Dr. Eli N. Avila in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of national voting rights groups including Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, allege that the Commonwealth has systematically failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Since its 1993 enactment, the NVRA has helped ensure that low-income residents receive an opportunity to register to vote by mandating that all public assistance agencies offer voter registration services.
The plaintiffs allege that the majority of clients seeking public assistance services in Pennsylvania are simply not being offered voter registration opportunities, and some public assistance agencies do not even have the voter registration forms available on request. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that, based on Pennsylvania’s own submissions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Pennsylvania public assistance offices decreased by a staggering 93% in recent years, from 59,462 in 1995-1996 to just 4,179 in 2009-2010. This steep decline in voter registrations is particularly significant because it occurred during the same period that both the population of the Commonwealth and the number of applicants for public assistance were increasing.
As a result of the Commonwealth’s failures, the Plaintiffs are forced to expend resources helping to register citizens who would otherwise be registered by the Commonwealth.
The freedom to vote is the foundation of American democracy. It is the means by which Americans, regardless of class or race, control their lives and their futures.
"The freedom to vote is the foundation of American democracy. It is the means by which Americans, regardless of class or race, control their lives and their futures. The NVRA tasks all states, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with promoting and protecting this fundamental freedom," said Dave Rubino, counsel at Demos. "Right now, the Commonwealth is falling short on that task."
In the past several years, lawsuits filed by 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 more than 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 were also recently settled in New Mexico, Indiana and Georgia.
“Public assistance clients greatly benefit from accessible voter registration. Congress decided that these citizens shouldn’t have to jump through additional hoops to register,” said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “Our interviews with public assistance clients showed that few had received voter registration applications when they should have, and some offices didn’t even have voter registration applications on site when we asked for them."
“Public assistance offices are in a unique position to increase voter registration rates among low-income citizens, the disabled and racial minorities,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “Pennsylvania should realize this potential and correct the inadequacies within its system.”
The national coalition had been attempting to work with the Commonwealth collaboratively on NVRA compliance for a number of years. Only when it became clear that the Commonwealth would not voluntarily come into compliance prior to the voter registration deadline for this year's elections did the group opt to take legal action. Among other things, the Complaint seeks an order directing defendants, under a court-approved plan, to take all actions necessary to remedy the past and continuing violations of Section 7 of the NVRA.
“The people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and indeed the nation, who might benefit the most from having an ongoing, consistent and accessible opportunity to register to vote are low income residents. The opportunity for political empowerment and the opportunity to vote in each and every election cannot be underestimated,” said Tim Stevens, Chairman and CEO of B-PEP, “It is imperative that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania meet its NVRA obligation.”
“Voting is the cornerstone of civic engagement and a critical part of being a citizen” said Lucille Prater-Holliday, president of ACTION United. “Public assistance offices should be not just facilitating but encouraging low-income citizens to participate. These offices particularly are the front line of engagement for many citizens who are disengaged and all but disenfranchised. Their absolute failure to do their duty required by the NVRA to only perpetuates this disenfranchisement and disengagement.”