Massachusetts Citizen and Community Groups Sue Commonwealth for Failing to Provide Voter Registration Opportunities

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Lisa J. Danetz, Demos: (617) 256-6266
Stacie Royster, Lawyers’ Committee (national): (202) 662-8317
Sarah Massey, Project Vote: (202) 210-6614
Rahsaan Hall, Lawyers’ Committee (Boston): (617) 988-0608
Tim Larimer, Ropes & Gray LLP: (212) 596-9414

Massachusetts Citizen and Community Groups Sue Commonwealth for Failing to Provide Voter Registration Opportunities

BOSTON - Citing clear evidence that the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) have violated their federally-mandated responsibilities to offer tens of thousands of public assistance clients opportunities to register to vote, a Massachusetts citizen and two community groups filed suit today for violations of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).

Download the Complaint (PDF): http://bit.ly/J9XBwC

Congress passed the NVRA to boost democratic participation by ensuring that all eligible citizens have ample opportunities to register to vote.  Section 7 of the law requires state agencies that provide public assistance, including those that administer federal assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, and WIC, to assist their applicants and clients in registering to vote.

Attorneys filed today’s suit on behalf of Bethzaida Delgado, NAACP New England Area Conference (NAACP-NEAC), and New England United for Justice (NEU4J).  Ms. Delgado is a DTA client who is eligible to vote but was not offered the opportunity to register in her interactions with DTA offices over several years.  The NAACP, the oldest, largest and most effective civil rights advocacy organization in the country, and NEU4J, a community organization, help low-income Massachusetts citizens register to vote. They seek concrete changes in DTA practices and procedures that will make voter registration available to every eligible public assistance agency applicant and client in the Commonwealth, as required by the NVRA.

The plaintiffs are represented by voting rights groups Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, as well as the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP.  Defendants named in the suit are Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin and officials from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the DTA.

 “The NVRA is the best law on the books for helping low-income citizens participate in our democracy, and states must follow it,” said Lisa Danetz, counsel for Demos.  “It’s surprising and disappointing that Massachusetts is lagging behind rather than leading the charge.”

“Ropes & Gray’s decision to serve as pro bono legal counsel in this voting rights case shows our continuing commitment to represent low income individuals who are too often denied access to our judicial system,” said Ken Felter, a Boston-based partner at the firm, whose lawyers devoted almost 90,000 hours to pro bono work in 2011.  “Voting is a fundamental right, and we hope that, as result of this case, Massachusetts will immediately remedy its widespread and systemic violations of the NVRA in time for every eligible citizen receiving public assistance to register and vote in the November federal election.”

In a Complaint filed today in federal district court in Boston, plaintiffs point to what they say is clear evidence that the Commonwealth and DTA are not complying with federal law:

  • The number of voter registration applications submitted through public assistance offices in 2009-2010 (just 2,007) is down 92.5% from 1999-2000.
  • DTA’s own internal reporting suggests that at least 94.2% of its clients in 2011 did not receive the required voter registration services.
  • Nearly three-quarters of DTA clients interviewed in preparation for today’s suit reported receiving no offer of voter registration opportunities in any manner. 

“The NVRA makes voter registration DTA’s responsibility,” said Maude Heard of NEU4J.  “But because they’re not doing their job, we need to spend scarce resources helping members of our community get on the voter rolls.” 

“We’re tired of picking up the slack when the state fails our most vulnerable citizens,“ added Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.  “So, after years of neglect we decided to sue.”

According to plaintiffs, Massachusetts’ NVRA violations have contributed to a significant income-based voter registration gap in the Commonwealth.  For example, in 2010 only 58.2% of eligible low-income citizens were registered to vote, compared with 76.9% of affluent citizens– a “voter registration gap” of 18.7%.  This gap was 28% in the presidential election year of 2008. 

“In failing to comply with the NVRA, Massachusetts has significantly limited low-income citizens’ opportunities to register to vote.  This ultimately threatens the integrity of our democracy not just in the Commonwealth, but nationwide,” said Sarah Brannon, director of the Public Agency Registration Program at Project Vote.

Further, plaintiffs’ attorneys report that NVRA violations in Massachusetts are part of a national pattern of states failing to meet their public agency registration obligations.  According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, public assistance agencies nationwide collected just 528,000 voter registration applications in 2005-2006, compared with 2.6 million when the NVRA was first implemented in 1995-1996, an 80% decline.  Since 2006, interventions like today’s lawsuit have helped reverse the decade-long negative trend.  Public assistance agencies collected 1.1 million applications in 2009-2010.

“As we experience a national wave of attempts to keep low-income citizens off the rolls and out of the voting booth, we simply cannot accept any state’s failure to meet its responsibilities,” said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Plaintiffs’ initial goal is to obtain a preliminary injunction ordering defendants to develop and implement remedial practices and policies in time to get tens of thousands of low-income voters on the voter rolls for this fall’s election. 

“With the voter registration deadline for the 2012 election rapidly approaching, we don’t have a moment to lose,” said Rahsaan Hall, deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.  “Now is the time to help low-income citizens make their voices heard in our democracy.”

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