by Project Vote, Wed Dec 22, 2010 at 02:58:47 PM EST
Voting rights groups scored a major victory in their efforts to bring the State of New Mexico into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) when a judge ruled that the state Human Services Division is violating the NVRA through their policy of only offering the opportunity to register to vote to clients who explicitly request to do so.
Yesterday’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of voting rights groups against New Mexico’s Human Services Division (HSD) and Secretary of State Mary Herrera, which cited clear evidence that New Mexico public assistance offices are violating their federally mandated responsibility to offer tens of thousands of New Mexicans each year the opportunity to register to vote. The plaintiff is represented by voting rights groups Project Vote, Dēmos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), as well as by the law firm of DLA Piper U.S.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires that public assistance agencies give clients a voter registration application with every application for benefits, recertification, and change of address. New Mexico policy, however, has been to give voter registration application forms to only those clients who explicitly request them, a practice that plaintiff maintains is in violation of the NVRA.
Yesterday, United States District Judge Judith Herrera agreed and the court held that “Section 7 does not make the provision of a voter registration application contingent upon an affirmative request,” meaning that the State’s current policy is a violation of the law.
“This is a huge victory for NVRA enforcement, not just in New Mexico, but all across the country,” said Project Vote’s Director of Public Agency Voter Registration, Nicole Zeitler. “Agencies must give out a voter registration application form to everyone who applies for benefits, recertifies, or changes address. Federal law requires it, the Department of Justice has confirmed it, and now the federal courts are ordering it.”
The voting rights groups are hailing this as the first legal ruling on the issue of whether clients must “opt in” to be offered the opportunity to register to vote. “This should be a wake-up call to other states whose agencies are still refusing to give out voter registration applications unless the client specifically asks for it,” says Zeitler.
The voting rights advocates won on all fronts in yesterday’s ruling. Not only did the court grant plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, but it also denied both HSD’s and the Secretary of State’s motions for summary judgment. In denying HSD’s motion, the court pointed to plaintiff’s allegations of years of widespread non-compliance, noting that “the Court cannot say as a matter of law that HSD has demonstrated that it has the tools in place to be compliant in the future without an injunction and Court monitoring.”
“The Court hit on the exact reasons why we brought this case in the first place,” says Robert Kengle, Acting Co-Director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project. “New Mexico’s public assistance offices have been out of compliance with the NVRA for years, and nothing short of comprehensive reform, ordered and monitored by the court, will repair the damage that has been done to the voting rights of low-income New Mexicans.”
In another important decision, the District Court rejected Secretary of State Herrera’s claim that her office is not responsible for ensuring compliance with the NVRA in New Mexico. Relying on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Harkless v. Brunner, an NVRA lawsuit filed by the same voting rights groups in Ohio, Judge Herrera agreed with the Sixth Circuit that “each state’s chief election official is responsible for NVRA state compliance,” and that therefore “Defendant Herrera has the obligation to prescribe the actions that the state, including HSD offices, must take to comply with Section 7.”
“Courts now have repeatedly confirmed that state election officials must take responsibility for ensuring that low-income voters receive the voter registration opportunities required by federal law,” said Demos’ Counsel Allegra Chapman. “This decision should encourage chief election officials throughout the country to examine agency practices on voter registration, and take corrective action when needed.”
The coalition of voting rights groups has been advocating for enforcement of the NVRA in several states, and settled a related claim against New Mexico’s Motor Vehicles Division in July of this year. Following the groups’ successful lawsuit in Missouri in 2008, voter registration applications submitted at the state’s public assistance offices skyrocketed from fewer than 8,000 a year to more than 130,000 a year. More than 200,000 clients have applied to become registered voters in Ohio after a similar lawsuit was settled in that state last year.
The groups estimate that proper implementation nationwide of the NVRA’s public assistance provisions could result in 2-3 million additional registrations per year.