National Voting Rights Groups Put Secretary of State Johnson on Notice of Voting Rights Violations
Detroit, Michigan - Citing clear evidence that the State of Michigan is failing to provide low-income residents with a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote, attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), and the NAACP sent a pre-litigation notice letter on August 19, 2011 to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, on behalf of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP. The letter demands that the Secretary immediately act to bring Michigan into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) or face litigation.
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies, which provide services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, to provide voter registration services to their clients. In the first two years after the NVRA became effective in Michigan in 1995, the State registered more than 79,500 people through public assistance agencies.
However, according to evidence cited in the notice letter, the local offices of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) have largely disregarded this law in recent years. For example, looking at registration data for 2005-2006 and 2007-2008, there was an 82.5% decrease in the number of voter registration applications submitted through public assistance agencies in Michigan - even though 2008 included a historic presidential election for which high voter registration at public assistance agencies would be expected. Field investigations found that public assistance clients around the state are not being provided with voter registration applications, contrary to the requirements of the NVRA.
"It is clear that frontline workers are not providing low-income residents with voter registration opportunities, and that Michigan is not complying with the NVRA. This fact is especially shocking from a state agency that has recognized voter registration as part of its core mission of client empowerment," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at Demos.
According to the notice letter, Michigan's policies and practices run afoul of the NVRA's requirements. The NVRA requires agencies to affirmatively offer voter registration with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction. However, for a vast majority of interactions, Michigan requires distribution of a voter registration application only when the applicant makes an affirmative request for one and, in addition, the offer of voter registration is buried deep within the benefits application where clients are unlikely to see it. Furthermore, according to the field investigations, three out of four clients whodo request a voter registration application fail to receive one.
"Michigan's public assistance agencies can and must provide voter registration services," said Bob Kengle, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. "Congress included Section 7 in the NVRA to ensure that traditionally disenfranchised citizens, including low-income persons, have a periodic opportunity to register or update their registration when they do business with DHS. It is crucial for Michigan's officials to take this responsibility seriously."
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 over 130,000 a year, following settlement of a suit in that state in 2009. Almost 290,000 low-income Ohioans have applied to register since a similar case was settled there at the end of 2009. Cases were recently settled in New Mexico and Indiana, and other cases are pending in Georgia and Louisiana.
"Public agency registration is essential because it reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled," says Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. "It's important, it's effective, and it's the law."
"By failing to offer voter registration at the Michigan Department of Human Services offices, Michigan state officials are making it more difficult for low-income and minority citizens to register to vote," said NAACP General Counsel Kim M. Keenan. "The State of Michigan must fulfill its obligations under the NVRA. True democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of race."
In the letter, the voting rights groups advised that they are ready to work with state officials to bring the state into full compliance with the NVRA to ensure that all Michigan residents have an equal opportunity to register to vote.
READ THE NOTICE: http://bit.ly/rlxxtN